Disney Exec Anne Sweeney Opts Out; Plans to Become Television Director

Anne Sweeney
Bob D’Amico/ABC

In a shocking move many didn’t see coming, one of Hollywood’s most powerful women — Anne Sweeney, co-chair of Disney Media Networks and president of Disney/ABC Television Group — has decided to hand over her reins in order to pursue her real passion: Directing!

In a story published in the March 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter, Sweeney explains that she’s stepping out of the coveted position she’s held for the past 18 years at the end of this year, just before her contract expires (in January 2015). “What drives me now is… being immersed in the creative process,” says the exec, who began her career at Nickelodeon and FX before joining Disney (where her divisions generated $11.9 billion in revenue and $2.6 billion in profit).

The Walt Disney Company
The Walt Disney Company

As soap fans might remember, Sweeney was instrumental in creating — and later cancelling — SOAPnet during her tenure with ABC. In an October 4, 2000 interview with Elizabeth Glass for the program “Hauser Project,” Sweeney said SOAPnet “was born out of the fact that soap operas are still a very healthy genre but suffering from a lifestyle change with its core viewers and we took this idea of really making it easier for people to access the shows that they love out into a test situation and we tested two different formats for the channel and very quickly learned which one would work, and then did a great amount of homework with this group of people who would be watching soaps later the same day on what additional needs they had. What else did they want; what else did they want to know? And that’s how we slowly put together the pieces that became SOAPnet.”

She followed up that statement nearly 10 years later with an explanation as to why the network was being transformed into Disney Junior. “SOAPnet was created in 2000 to give daytime viewers the ability to watch time-shifted soaps, before multiplatform viewing and DVRs were part of our vocabulary,” she explained. “But today, as technology and our businesses evolve, it makes more sense to align this distribution with a preschool channel that builds on the core strengths of our company.”

After Sweeney announced her decision to leave, Disney CEO Bob Iger announced that he hopes to find a successor to replace her by the end of the pilot season in May. Meanwhile, Sweeney is readying herself for her next chapter: Becoming a director. “I’m very committed to immersing myself in the creative process again,” she says. “I’m at a really beautiful point in my life. My kids are grown and out of the house. My husband is supportive; he knows I’ve always had a passion for the creative process. He sees me reading scripts, looking at rough cuts, he knows that is my underlying passion. I’ve often said [to others] ‘Do the things that scare you the most.’ I’ve always believed that you learn your entire life and you should never pigeonhole yourself. You should also be open to your passion and mine is the creative process and to be a learner again.”

For more on this story, check out The Hollywood Reporter. And read below for Sweeney’s official statement (via an ABC press release) regarding her impending exit.

“The past 18 years at Disney have been the highlight of my executive career,” she states. “I’ve been a part of an amazing evolution in our business and our industry, and have achieved far more than I ever thought possible. But as wonderful as the experience has been, there has always been a nagging voice in the back of my head pushing me to step out of the comfort zone of the executive ranks and more directly into the creative arena that enticed me to TV in the first place. I finally listened to that voice and thought, ‘if not now, when?’ I know my decision to step back from all of this to learn the art of Directing may seem surprising, but to me it’s a long realized dream. I am so thankful to Bob Iger for his leadership, guidance and his friendship over the years, and am grateful not only for his offer to remain with the Company for many years to come, but his understanding and support of my decision to make this change. I’m excited to spend the remainder of this year positioning the TV Group for even greater success.”