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Orchestrating New Distribution Strategies

It’s not every industry executive who can boast of an ability to keep all parts of a challenging company moving in harmony. But Disney Media Distribution president of global distribution Ben Pyne understands better than most: The trained classical guitarist also had a formative run managing an orchestra.

“It was a fantastic opportunity for learning about management and negotiating,” recalls Pyne, who was manager of the New Jersey Symphony from 1985-90. “Nonprofits are understaffed, so I did everything from hiring guest artists to collective bargaining. I worked with the artistic director to program 170 concerts a year. It was a fascinating logistical challenge.”

Pyne’s skill in orchestrating complex deals has played a key role in both his own career and the distribution of Disney/ABC networks and programs. “Ben is so effective because he is a brilliant and creative thinker,” says Anne Sweeney, cochair of Disney Media Networks and president of Disney/ABC Television Group. Those skills have allowed Pyne “to negotiate deals that deliver our content to the widest audiences and create the best value for us and our partners.”

Pyne earned an MBA in 1992 from Harvard, where he became fascinated with the cable TV business. His first post-Masters job was in the national affiliate accounts operation at Disney Channel, where he worked on many of the deals with operators that enabled the channel to switch from premium service to basic.

In 2004, the company decided it could improve its negotiating clout with operators by combining the ESPN affiliate sales groups with the Disney/ABC operations being run by Pyne. “Putting the teams together really allowed us to align our priorities,” recalls Pyne, who took the No. 2 spot in the operation under Sean Bratches, now ESPN executive VP of sales and marketing. “We negotiated a very big deal with DirectTV as one group, and it really showed the power of being aligned,” Pyne says.

In 2005, Pyne was asked to spearhead wide-ranging, complex negotiations with BSkyB, the U.K.’s largest pay-TV operator and a key buyer of U.S. films and TV series.

Pyne worked on the deal for nearly a year. “Sky-Disney was a complicated, difficult negotiation with a lot of money at stake,” recalls Richard Freudenstein, CEO of Foxtel in Australia, who was COO at BSkyB at the time. “Ben was at all times constructive and positive, always looking for solutions and trying new ideas to break impasses. Without [him], I doubt the deal would have got finished.”

The result, Freudenstein adds, “reset the Sky-Disney relationship, which has since gone from strength to strength, most recently seeing the launch of Sky-Disney movies and fantastic creative use of Disney and Pixar characters in Sky advertising.”

The role led to Pyne’s current post as president of global distribution for Disney Media Networks, which he rose to in 2007. It was one of the earliest examples of the studios combining domestic and international distribution.

Pyne’s direct reports include execs overseeing teams handling international program and channel distribution, domestic syndication, ABC’s affiliate relations department and the Disney affiliate sales and marketing teams.

Keeping all of these operations in harmony while allowing executives in each area to display their considerable expertise is particularly crucial during a period when rapid technological change is transforming the industry. “We are so much smarter as a company if we can bring all of the thinking together and try to figure out how one great strategy in one country might be introduced or applied to another territory,” Pyne says.

Fine-Tuned for Sales

Better communication between different divisions has also helped the company develop new windows, products and business models that have produced healthy sales growth. Internationally, for example, the company has launched an ABC Studios On Demand catchup service in 26 markets around the world, and in the U.S. it was one of the first to add live linear streams to its TV Everywhere apps.

The Watch ABC mobile app is particularly notable as it provides linear streams of local ABC-owned stations to authenticated multichannel subscribers. “We’ve done deals with seven of the top 10 [multichannel video providers], and we expect to complete those by the end of 2014,” Pyne says, adding that they are also making progress in cutting deals with local stations to expand the products’ reach.

Outside of work, Pyne looks forward to spending time with his wife and sons, as well as playing golf and tennis. But in the last two years he has also been playing more classical guitar, a hobby that seems to dovetail well with his focus on orchestrating better distribution strategies at Disney.

Here, Pyne characteristically stresses his role as an orchestra manager, not a star soloist, citing numerous examples of how many of Disney Media Network’s best ideas have bubbled up from the executives and staffers reporting to him. “We have amazing teams and people,” he says. “The important thing is that we all talk and communicate.”