Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Anne Sweeney: TV president rewriting rules for digital age

From Sheena McKenzie, for CNN, and Poppy Harlow, CNN
November 26, 2013 -- Updated 1737 GMT (0137 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Meet Anne Sweeney, one of the most powerful people in American television
  • Co-chair of Disney Media Networks and president of Disney/ABC TV Group
  • Steered company through new digital age, including downloading from iTunes

Leading Women connects you to extraordinary women of our time. Each week, we profile women at the top of their field, exploring their careers, lives and ideas.

(CNN) -- When you're the head of one of the biggest broadcast networks in the world, the last thing you want to hear from your teenage daughter is that they don't want a TV in their home.

"That wasn't gonna fly. Not for one minute," says Anne Sweeney, co-chair of Disney Media Networks and president of the Disney/ABC Television Group, after her daughter moved to college and snubbed the idea of taking the ubiquitous tube.

"I said to her: 'Rosemary, television has been very very good to you. You will have a television if I have to nail it to your wall.'

"And it was one of those 'Mom, you don't understand. I watch everything online now.'"

Tech CEO benefits from being an outsider
Marvel and Portman make science cool
Capturing Typhoon Haiyan from Space
From the family farm to the U.N.

Anne Sweeney might be one of the most powerful people in television -- overseeing ABC TV, ABC Studios, and Disney Channels Worldwide. But when it comes to predicting trends, her two children have always been ahead of the pack.

"I've always said, if you want to know what the future is, ask a nine-year-old because they're just so adept," said the 56-year-old, who Fortune named the 18th most powerful woman in business.

"What they taught me was to be less parochial, less conventional, to be more daring. They were so free to experiment with technology. I remember my son putting a piece of liquorice into the VCR and not understanding why he couldn't see it on the television set."

The future of television

"Create what's next," has become Sweeney's motto, and under her leadership she's steered the company through a brave new world where watching television is no longer about families gathering around a hulking black box in the corner of the room.

Indeed, in 2005 she got a call from Apple's Steve Jobs -- "I thought, 'that's cool, I've always wanted to talk to Steve Jobs'" -- about a new piece of technology, the video iPod.

Read: Sandra Bullock -- Gravity isn't a 'female film'

"As I held the video iPod in my hand I thought, 'I really like this.' I was watching an episode of Lost -- the sound was pristine, the quality of the picture was excellent.

"No one knew that that would be the beginning of probably the biggest moment in our television group -- this move towards technology that would make our content available wherever you are, on whatever device you're holding at that moment."

Under Sweeney, Disney/ABC Television Group became the first media company to put television content on new platforms -- eventually selling videos on iTunes. It's something we now take for granted as we watch our favorite programs in the palm of our hands.

In 2006, it also became the first network to stream full episodes online, winning an Emmy for technical innovation.

Day in the life

Not bad for someone critics initially said didn't have enough experience for the top job at Disney/ABC. Funnily enough, Sweeney agrees.

"I knew they were right," she said, joining the company in 1996 after working 12 years at Nickelodeon's Nick at Nite in various executive positions, and later as chairman and CEO of FX Networks, Inc. for three years.

"I didn't have the experience. But I really didn't care what people said because I was so excited to lead ABC," she says, adding: "My strategy was to go in and learn."

Read: Natalie Portman -- Science's unlikely heroine?

Today, Sweeney heads almost 10,000 employees, overseeing 107 channels in 166 countries.

Working for Rupert Murdoch was like being handed a saddle, given a horse, and told to ride fast
Anne Sweeney

This is a woman who rises at 4.30 am every morning, receiving anywhere between 300 and 500 emails each day -- "I read through them quickly, and I delegate well,' she says.

Mom's the word

Growing up in New York, Sweeney's mother was a teacher, her father a school principal, and she describes her mom as both her first mentor and a "powerhouse."

Her dream job as a child was to be a ballerina and later an actress.

Sweeney received a masters in education from Harvard University, before landing a job at Nickelodeon in the early 1980s, and in 1993 moved to FX Networks, Inc.

"Going to FOX and working for Rupert Murdoch was like being handed a saddle and given a horse and just told to ride, go fast," she says. "There was tremendous creative freedom."

Family first

Her "favorite job," however is being a mom to Rosemary and son Christopher -- who is autistic. It's a job she says she couldn't do without the help of her husband and "absolutely magnificent" father of her children, Philip Miller, who lives with her in Burbank, California.

When it comes to caring for Christopher, she says: "Don't be the martyr, don't be the hero parent, talk openly about it. Because I found that the more I talked about it, the more people came up to me and would whisper: 'My child is autistic.' And I realized that some people felt that there was a stigma and I thought: 'Oh, I don't feel a stigma.'"

Read: Angela Ahrendts -- Burberry CEO reinvented heritage brand

So does Anne Sweeney "have it all?"

"Is it hard to work and have kids? Absolutely," she says.

"And look at how many tens of millions of mothers do this in this country every single day. You know to me, 'having it all' is having your love. It's that simple."

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
CNN set out on a hunt to find the women who excelled in their professions this year and we found some of the most inspiring women of 2014.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1419 GMT (2219 HKT)
Jane Fraser is often cited as one of the most powerful women in banking. She tells CNN's Poppy Harlow how women lead differently.
December 3, 2014 -- Updated 1743 GMT (0143 HKT)
Women's-only private members clubs are becoming more popular, offering spaces to work, socialize and relax, albeit with hefty membership fees.
November 28, 2014 -- Updated 1515 GMT (2315 HKT)
A new social network for women claims to be 'troll-proof' and was created by Karen Cahn, former Google, YouTube, Aol executive.
November 27, 2014 -- Updated 1418 GMT (2218 HKT)
She's the daughter of a Beatle and counts Kate Moss among her friends, but she had to create her own mark in the fashion world.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 1743 GMT (0143 HKT)
Alli Webb always loved having her hair done, so she decided to bring that happy feeling to millions of women worldwide with her business, Drybar.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1324 GMT (2124 HKT)
NASA's chief scientist Dr Ellen Stofan wants to land humans on Mars by 2035, but there are some serious challenges to overcome before then.
November 4, 2014 -- Updated 1041 GMT (1841 HKT)
The Design Museum hosts a power dressing exhibition, from Joan of Arc's short tunics, to Joan Collins' eye-gouging shoulder pads.
October 30, 2014 -- Updated 1520 GMT (2320 HKT)
Opinion piece from architect Zaha Hadid on growing up in a very different Iraq, to close Leading Women's month of STEM coverage.
October 30, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Leading Women ran an iReport assignment which resulted in some amazing images of girls in STEM from our readers.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 1108 GMT (1908 HKT)
Robots can be many things -- knowledgeable, dexterous, strong. But can they ever be genuinely laugh-out-loud hilarious?
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1830 GMT (0230 HKT)
Victoria Beckham has come a long way from Posh Spice. She has now been named Britain's top entrepreneur, by magazine Management Today.
ADVERTISEMENT