B+C Station Awards: Debra OConnell Makes the Most of ABC Local, National Brands

Disney Media & Entertainment Distribution president Debra OConnell
Disney Media & Entertainment Distribution president Debra OConnell (Image credit: Mark Reinertson)

Debra OConnell is president of networks for Disney Media & Entertainment Distribution, where her duties include P&L oversight of all Disney linear channels, as well as business planning, network/channel commercial marketing and audience strategy for the ABC network, its owned stations and cable networks that include Disney Channel, ESPN Networks, FX Networks and National Geographic. 

ABC Owned Television Stations is a peerless group, seizing the lion’s share of ratings points and viewer loyalty in its eight markets, and earning the division B+C’s Station Group of the Year honors in 2022. 

OConnell took on the expansive role in late 2020, following her stint as WABC New York president and general manager. She’s also chair of the International Radio & Television Society (IRTS) and is on the board of directors for the TVB and The Broadway Association. 

She spoke with B+C about her 2022 highlights, how broadcast stays relevant in an increasingly mobile world and what she’s looking out for in 2023. An edited transcript follows.

B+C: What drew you to the president of networks position a couple of years ago?

Debra OConnell: It was the perfect elevation and transition, all at the right time. What drew me to this role was the opportunity to take my, at that time, 23 years of experience across Disney and almost 30 years across the industry. You think about how your skill set has prepared you for an opportunity like the one that was in front of me, meaning I had both the business and creative and content sides. I had an opportunity to continue to keep the No. 1 station in the country [WABC New York], and this incredible team, as part of my purview, as well as having the opportunity to work across our networks again. 

Thinking about the businesses that had so many similarities and adjacent opportunities, it was a very attractive opportunity for me to consider. 

B+C: How did running WABC prepare you for this position?

DO: When you’re leading a television station, especially one with the size and the market scope of WABC in New York, and also have the opportunity to lead a national syndicated show, Live with Kelly and Ryan, you think about the fact that you’re sitting in multiple spaces — everything from news, from original content development, long form and short form. We had just launched our CTV apps while I was at WABC. Touching every platform, as well as working extremely closely with our distribution team because of our content sales and distribution with Live with Kelly and Ryan, and also the national efforts there … The fact that New York is such an important market in terms of driving our network business, whether it’s ABC Entertainment or ABC News — working closely with those groups and also having the opportunity to be part of The Walt Disney Company, we would tap into telling the stories around the stories that were being told. It was great access to content, and having that wide breadth and depth of experiences and touchpoints, as well as running the P&L for the station and the entire business operations — it prepares you to do that more broadly, either taking those best practices and working across various groups, or being able to collaborate in a really deep way with partners across the organization and the industry.

WABC New York morning anchors

Market leader WABC’s Eyewitness News This Morning team (l. to r.): Traffic reporter Heather O’Rourke, anchors Ken Rosato and Shirleen Allicot, and meteorologist Sam Champion. (Image credit: WABC)

B+C: How do you ensure that the networks have the same presence for users on the go as they do for linear viewers?

DO: We have very robust TV everywhere platforms. Our ABC app actually gives you access to a variety of content opportunities. As an authenticated user, you can watch us live, and we were the first broadcaster to be live inside of a mobile on-the-go platform. At the same time, we have offerings for those that are not authenticated. News is something that we want our communities to have access to at any given time. 

We are constantly improving and looking at our user experience inside of ABC News and ABC Owned Television Stations. Earlier this year, we launched a few efforts to make sure that we are connected with our audiences wherever they may be or how they choose to be served. One was our 24/7 ABC Owned Television Stations streaming channels across our eight markets. We developed a really great partnership in terms of programming and scheduling and content windowing between ABC News Live and ABC Owned Stations. Inside of Hulu, if you are in any of our eight markets, you have an ABC News Live channel that gives you the best of both national and local news. 

We’re constantly looking at ways that our consumers want to connect with us in any space, and certainly the opportunity to connect with them on the go through a variety of different access points. We want to make sure that they have the opportunity to engage with us, to get information from us, for us to entertain them. 

KRTK Houston news team

Rita Garcia, Jacob Rascon, Elita Loresca and Samica Knight deliver the news for ABC-owned KTRK Houston. (Image credit: KRTK)

B+C: What are you most proud of in terms of your portfolio this year?

DO: First, the team. The entire team, across not only the networks group, but the entire company, because it is a team sport. 

Second, and almost tied with first, our strength, our No. 1 positioning against our competitive set, in each of the areas of focus that we have across our networks, across ABC Owned Television Stations. We know that we’re serving our communities and our audiences the way they want to receive us, because they’re engaging with us. 

The fact that we continue to have growth in live entertainment — everything from year-to-year increases in the Oscars, the CMA Awards, New Year’s Rockin’ Eve — we have a really great opportunity to continue to showcase our strengths. When you think about sports, we are experiencing our high-water mark over the last three years across ESPN and ESPN2, and our ABC Sports portfolio as well. 

We have the largest-growing cable network, FXX. We serve our audience with a very specific programming strategy that we developed around adult animation, and that’s given [FXX] incredible growth this year. 

B+C: When you look ahead to 2023, what’s the biggest challenge for broadcast networks?

DO: Environment. The last several years have been somewhat challenging, from a news-coverage perspective, because there are many shifts and turns. At times it feels like a scripted narrative, as if we were actually creating a series like what we’re living through. Health care is part of it. You’re covering really challenging moments for communities,
which affect everybody who works for you and affects the long-term ability to continue to serve. But these teams are resilient across the entire industry. 

And then competition. I don’t see it as something that takes over the strong
position that we have as broadcasters and our networks group. It’s share of attention. We want to continue to make sure that we’re providing the highest quality and continue to be the best in the business, because consumers have choice. We need to make sure that we are fulfilling their value proposition. That’s more of a continued challenge in a positive way. 

Debra OConnell at 2022 Gracie Awards

Disney Media & Entertainment Distribution president of networks Debra OConnell at the 2022 Gracie Awards.  (Image credit: Monica Schipper/Getty Images for The Alliance for Women in Media)

B+C: Tell me about your efforts to mentor young executives.

DO: One of my favorite quotes is, life begins at the end of your comfort zone. As opportunities come, some executives or some who are aspiring to be executives are often concerned with, do they have the right qualifications? I encourage those to consider not only elevations, but job expansions where possible, meaning, is there an opportunity for a budding executive to take sometimes a lateral move to grow their expertise? I’ve done that several times. 

We’re very fortunate to work for The Walt Disney Company. Our access to opportunities is limitless. There’s no better place to become a student of the business and there’s no better place to open up opportunities to expand not only your knowledge, but to raise your hand for stretch assignments so that you can lean into different opportunities. It gives you a chance to realize what you love, and maybe what you don’t love. 

There’s nothing that is more rewarding to me than to see young potential executives continuing to grow and being a part of that. Maybe they’ve taken a bit of your advice
and it’s helped them throughout the course of their career. 

I also try to remind people that they should always throw kindness like confetti. ■

Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.