When Anne Sweeney took a job during college working as a page at ABC Studios, nobody could have anticipated just how prescient it was for her to be hired by that particular network. More than twenty-five years later, her 2004 promotion to president of the Disney-ABC Television Group would bring her the “The Most Powerful Woman in Entertainment” title from the Hollywood Reporter, not to mention also being declared one of the “50 Most Powerful Women in Business” by Fortune and one of “The World’s 100 Most Powerful Women” by Forbes. Sweeney’s first steps toward this stratosphere began in 1981 at Nickelodeon, where her dual interests in children’s education and television landed her a job as an assistant to program manager Geraldine Laybourne (who herself would later serve as president of Disney-ABC). After rising through the ranks at Nickelodeon, Sweeney moved on to help establish the FX Networks in 1993. Her arrival at the Walt Disney Company in 1996 would prove pivotal in making its cable station, the Disney Channel, into a powerful entity. How does Sweeney account for this meteoric rise? “Growth and learning are so important,” Sweeney once said. “I find that I learn the most when I am most uncomfortable, when I am put into a totally new situation.”
The daughter of teachers, Sweeney studied child development while pursuing a degree in English at the College of New Rochelle, then received her masters in education from Harvard. In addition to her page job at ABC, she interned with an advocacy group called Action for Children’s Television. After landing the assistant job at Nickelodeon, Sweeney was soon promoted to Nickelodeon’s acquisitions department. She spent twelve years with the company, eventually rising to senior vice president of program enterprises. While there she not only established the station as a prime outlet for reruns of some of television’s beloved older shows, including The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, but also ensured Nickelodeon’s expansion to the British market by setting up a joint venture with Rupert Murdoch’s British Sky Broadcasting.
In 1993 when Murdoch decided to expand the Fox Television Network into the field of cable television, he asked Sweeney to join him, appointing her chief executive officer and chair to help establish the new FX Networks. Between 1993 and 1996 Sweeney presided over the launching of both FX, which offered a mix of series and news programming, and FXM: Movies, which unearthed films from the vaults of 20th Century Fox.
Despite her success at Fox, Sweeney was anxious to move back into children’s programming and got her wish when she received an offer from her former boss, Geraldine Laybourne, who had just become president of Disney/ABC Cable Networks. In February of 1996 Sweeney became both executive vice president of Disney/ABC and president of Disney’s premium cable network, the Disney Channel. One of her first goals was to bring the channel to a wider audience, supervising its change from premium to basic cable service. She also made sure that the programming would appeal not just to small children and nostalgia fans of older Disney fare, but also to the pivotal “tween” age bracket between nine and fourteen years old, hence the creation of such series as Lizzie McGuire, Even Stevens, and That’s So Raven. The Disney Channel increased its subscriber base from 19 million to 79 million households. Two years later Sweeney launched Toon Disney, the company’s all-animation network, which presented such new series as Kim Possible, Recess, and House of Mouse, which brought together such classic Disney characters as Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck on the same show. In January of 2000 Sweeney oversaw the debut of yet another cable network, SoapNet, which presents twenty-four hours of soap-related programming, airing recent episodes of current shows like Days of Our Lives and All My Children, as well as episodes of such older programs as Ryan’s Hope and Knots Landing.
Her promotion in 2000 to president of ABC Cable Networks Group and president of Disney Channel Worldwide put Sweeney in charge of all nonsports cable programming for the Walt Disney Company and for its ABC subsidiary. In 2004 when she was named cochairman of media networks for the Walt Disney Company, and president of Disney-ABC Television Group, it meant that Sweeney would preside over Disney’s cable, satellite, and broadcast properties throughout the world, including the ABC Television Network, Touchstone Television, and the Disney-ABC Cable Networks Group, as well as overseeing Walt Disney Television Animation and Buena Vista Domestic and International Television. As the Hollywood Reporter’s executive editor, Christy Grosz, said in 2004, when presenting Sweeney with the honor of being Hollywood’s Most Powerful Woman, “Anne Sweeney has a bigger job than any other woman working in television today. She’s taken the broadcast world by storm . . .”