NAB 2016: Disney’s Sherwood Touts Broadcasting’s ‘Superpower’

Complete Coverage: NAB Show 2016

Las Vegas—Ben Sherwood, co-chairman of Disney Media Networks and president of Disney-ABC Television Group, acknowledged downward ratings pressure on broadcast networks and stations but asserted their “superpower” to reach broad audiences during an opening-day keynote session.

Dismissing the premature obituaries that have been written for decades about the TV business, he took the audience back to the 1998 NAB Show, which featured an address by Disney’s current CEO, Bob Iger. His “call to action” continues to resonate, Sherwood said. “We must think bolder and bigger. We must harness some of the radical energy to reimagine our businesses.”

Sherwood noted that local broadcasting in 2015 created $1.4 trillion of economic activity and created 2.65 million jobs. More fundamentally, the bond between viewers and local broadcasters cannot be duplicated, he argued. “No app, no device is ever going to replace that relationship,” he said. “That is our superpower. That is our competitive advantage.”

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In order to further leverage that connection, Sherwood said ABC is seeking to expand the amount of streaming content that local stations make available to consumers. While not quite a stand-alone OTT offering a la CBS All Access, it is a step forward for the network whose Watch ABC app in 2013 was an early innovation in the space.

“We are pioneering creative, three-way distribution arrangements among ABC, our affiliates and video providers. These efficient, turn-key deals allow our affiliates to opt into partnerships that work for them, preserving the powerful local-national relationship while expediting the delivery of their signals.”

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The effort, dubbed Clearinghouse, is launching with partnerships with DirecTV and Sony. Fourteen of the ABC owned-and-operated affiliates are onboard at launch, with others rolling it out in the months to come.

Innovation, Sherwood said, is crucial in a media landscape which offers 25 different ways to watch a single TV episode. More video content is uploaded to YouTube in 60 days, he said, than the three oldest broadcast networks created in their first 60 years of existence.

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After his solo remarks, Sherwood sat with NAB president and CEO Gordon Smith, who had earlier delivered his opening keynote. During his initial remarks, he name-checked predecessor Anne Sweeney and former ABC entertainment chief Paul Lee for their efforts in starting the ball rolling on diversity in programming. The network is regarded as the leader among broadcasters, with shows from Scandal to black-ish to Fresh off the Boat re-setting norms.

"America looks and feels different than it did 50 years ago, 20 years ago, 10 years ago," he told Smith. "You'll see us, in harmony with the audience, making shows that are as popular and relevant and compelling as they can be. And that means the people on the shows and the people making the shows are going to be looking at and talking about different things."

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Sherwood and Smith then welcomed longtime ABC News reporter Bob Woodruff, who received the NAB Distinguished Service Award to a sustained ovation. Woodruff suffered a severe brain injury while on assignment in Iraq, but has battled back to resume on-air appearances while also steering a foundation that has raised $30 million for wounded veterans.

"I have to say that I might be the first person to get an award here for getting his head blown off," Woodruff quipped. His 10-minute remarks covered everything from his summers as a lineman for cable companies to his first on-air report in Redding, Calif. to his travels in Beijing as the Tiananmen Square rebellion took shape. Movingly, he described the arduous recovery from his injury, in a hospital ward where he lay unconscious for 36 days. Because of soldiers who attended to him in the field and got him medical care quickly, he pulled through.

"The men and women who volunteer to serve our country -- their quick action and their bravery is the very reason I am alive today," Woodruff said.