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Lesson of ABC News' Sherwood Hire: Answers Are Out There, So Keep Looking

The early Dec. 3 announcement that former Good Morning America exec producer Ben Sherwood (@SherwoodBen on Twitter) was named President of ABC News surprised a lot of people. That’s mainly because his name wasn’t on rumored short lists and he hasn’t been working directly in news for some time. But it’s one of those answers to a big question that when you actually take a moment to hear it, makes all the sense there is. And it’s a good one for everyone in this business to pay attention to.

Who can take the reins of the venerable ABC News from David Westin and lead the organization into the uncertain future has been one of the most puzzling mysteries in recent months among ABC News insiders, outside observers - and the exec in charge of the hire, Anne Sweeney, alike.

Sweeney, co-chair, Disney Media Networks and president, Disney/ABC Television Group, took on the search for Westin’s successor personally, giving her some great new respect for headhunters, she said in making the Sherwood announcement this morning. (Watch her talk about it in on video here)

She also said she knows the top ABC News job is clearly 24/7 as she thanked Westin for guiding the division through “some very good times and some very, very tough times.”

The going theory has been that Sweeney would need to go outside Disney/ABC to fill the post. There were no obvious successors inside ABC News, and the need for a fresh perspective to innovate the extremely challenged broadcast TV news business is one point among all the uncertainties of our business that isn’t really debatable.

But Sweeney has been filling virtually all top jobs in her regime in recent months with internal candidates. (See related: “Radio Disney G.M. Michael Riley Tapped to Head ABC Family,” Aug. 20, 2010 and “Paul Lee Named ABC Entertainment Group President,” July 30, 2010)

Sherwood, in essence, is both. The ABC News veteran has been away from the company for years, but as Sweeney said this morning: “Ben is by all rights one of us, one of ours actually.”

I don’t know Sherwood personally, but from the looks of what he’s done in TV news and elsewhere, this guy has some experience with triumphant change. And we all know the news business - especially the broadcast network news business - is in the market for some serious alchemy. As an author, he’s written about transcending grief, including his novel, The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud, which was turned into a movie. More recently, his bestselling non-fiction book The Survivors Club, is all about the “science and secrets” to overcoming adversity and gave rise to online resource center Earlier in his career, he left a stint at ABC News and explored a different direction after the sudden death of his father, according to his personal Web site

The choice of Sherwood is worth taking a beat to really take in, not just because it’s pretty neat that you can check the ABC insider and outsider boxes on him, and not just because he’s exhibited creative, entrepreneurial talents and the ability to get cozy with uncomfy change. For those reasons he sounds like a great choice to try his hand at moving ABC News forward.

What’s important to note is where this seemingly ideal candidate was, i.e., not in immediate, obvious, plain view. It speaks to the fact that there are great, inspired solutions out there to try on even our most confounding business needs. We just need to remember sometimes to shift our perspective a bit so we can see the market more deeply - and not just into the usual places.

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