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Sweeney's Got New Plans To 'Sharpen' Family

As president of the ABC Cable Networks Group, it's Anne Sweeney's job to fix the unit's weak link: a relative newcomer, ABC Family.

Last week, Sweeney said she's in the process of doing just that. "It is really sharpening the focus," Sweeney — whose unit also includes the better-performing Disney Channel, Toon Disney and SoapNet — said in an interview here last week.

ABC Family's problems have made life tougher lately for The Walt Disney Co.'s hierarchy. Comcast Cable president Steve Burke singled out ABC Family as a poorly performing asset that Comcast Corp. could fix if it succeeded in its current efforts to buy Disney.

Shareholders Roy Disney and Stanley Gold — leading a campaign to oust Disney chairman and CEO Michael Eisner at the March 3 shareholders meeting — also cite ABC Family's missteps and have predicted that the company will have to significantly write down its value.

The network's initial programming gambit, to act as a repository for repurposed ABC broadcast shows, never gelled.

Sweeney's new game plan calls for any future repurposing to be done gingerly, and in synch with a bigger strategy of targeting 18-to-34-year-olds.

"We found out through SoapNet, yeah, repurposing's a fantastic idea when you marry it to original programming, acquisitions and when it is part of a larger vision," Sweeney said. "Left to its own purpose, just rerunning programming from another network is not enough to be considered a vision statement."

ABC Family only came under Sweeney's wing late last year. The ratings-challenged cable network had first been under the ABC network's supervision, and then Disney corporate, until it was shuffled into Sweeney's tent last year.

That change didn't sit well with ABC Family president Angela Shapiro, who abruptly left. Her job vacancy needs to be filled, as does another slot: ABC Family has been without a programming chief since the December death of Linda Mancuso, who succumbed to cancer.

Around the holidays last year, Sweeney retained Carlsen Resources, an executive recruiter, to find a successor to Shapiro.

"No. 1, I have to get a president," Sweeney said. "I interviewed 12 people and I have a couple of people coming back for second interviews."

She wants to have someone in place in time for the ABC Family upfront in April, and also wants that new president to recruit a programming chief for the network.

But turnarounds aren't easy, and Madison Avenue is skeptically waiting to hear about yet another promised reversal of fortunes at ABC Family.

"When Disney first acquired it, it became a depository for everything that didn't work on ABC," said Shari Anne Brill, vice president and director of programming services for Carat USA Inc. "It was just a dumping ground. It was running The Bachelor, which was clearly not family-oriented."

Under Shapiro and Mancuso, ABC Family was "tapping into teen/tween niche that was really a void in the marketplace, because not everyone wants to be a little pop tart on MTV," Brill said. Now, "I don't know what their vision is."

Even so, ABC Family is becoming strategically more important to Disney. It was chosen as the domestic launching pad for Jetix, an action-adventure programming block that Disney wants to build into its next global brand.

If ABC Family's the problem child, Disney Channel is the overachiever. Last year, Disney Channel averaged a 1.7 primetime household rating, part of a three-way tie for second place, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Disney Channel may soon have additional marquee content. Last week, Walt Disney announced that it acquired the Muppets and Bear in the Big Blue House properties from The Jim Henson Co., reportedly for $90 million.

Disney Channel already airs Bear, but owning that series will present new opportunities in terms of additional programming and merchandizing, as will the Muppets.

"They are one of the great franchises of all times — the quality of the characters, whether it's the design component or the way they are drawn, the high quality of the storytelling, these are things that are very compatible with the Disney brand," Sweeney said.

In the meantime, some ABC Family functions have been integrated into ABC Cable's shared-services unit, where tasks like finance, business affairs and media relations are centralized.

Sweeney hopes to duplicate Disney Channel's success at ABC Family.

"She's done a great job with the Disney Channel," said Jessica Reif Cohen, the Merrill Lynch & Co. media analyst. "She's very talented, with a long successful track record. … Now that this [ABC Family] is under her, we'll see."

When Sweeney joined Disney eight years ago, she led the transition of Disney Channel from a premium service to a basic network, a move that made many operators howl. Disney's license fee is now in the 80-cent range, and the network has 84 million subscribers.

"We walked into Disney Channel, and it was this pay-converting-to-basic thing," Sweeney said. "And it was 14 million homes, and you look at it and think, 'Put your foot on the gas.'

"We got it to a point where we were launching a million new subscribers on basic every single month for five years. We had the most exhausted affiliate-marketing team you've ever seen."

Looking at ABC Family, which averaged a 0.7 rating in primetime last year, Sweeney saw the network filling a gap between the demographics that Disney's other TV networks serve. Disney Channel and Toon Disney target kids up to 14; ABC Family handles 18 to 34; and the ABC broadcast network focuses on viewers aged 18 to 49 and 25 to 49.

"The [ABC Family] positioning is very clearly this segment between Disney Channel and the ABC broadcast network," Sweeney said. "It is a segment 18 to 34 that includes older teens."

As for ABC Family's schedule: "What we basically had before were three islands — a boys' block, Pat Robertson [The 700 Club] and the rest of ABC Family — it's 'X, Y, Z,' and then a primetime strategy of acquisitions and some original movies."

The boy-friendly morning Jetix block is the foundation for the new brand Disney is trying to create.

Jetix, which also airs on Toon Disney in primetime and ABC on Saturday morning, features shows like Power Rangers DinoThunder. Disney's worldwide Fox Kids networks will be renamed Jetix. [Disney acquired the Fox Kids networks and Power Rangers library in its purchase of ABC Family — formerly Fox Family Channel — from News Corp. and Saban Entertainment].

"When the [ABC Family] acquisition happened and we found ourselves in the Power
business, we needed a platform that could fully exploit, on a seven-day-a-week basis, this franchise," said Sweeney, who was in New York to help promote Jetix. "It's an incredibly strong franchise and we need to keep it strong. We needed a broad-based place to carry this.

"This is an opportunity for the Disney Company to build out a new brand … so we will have created a network within a network."

Jetix also has some movies, meant to ease the audience flow from boys to the rest of ABC Family's schedule.

"The strengths are, we can get this boys' block in a position where it is part of the network, instead of an island," Sweeney said. "We're using movies [in Jetix] to help us transition into the rest of the day."