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Anne Sweeney: TV president rewriting rules for digital age

From Sheena McKenzie, for CNN, and Poppy Harlow, CNN
updated 12:37 PM EST, Tue November 26, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Meet Anne Sweeney, one of the most powerful people in American television
  • Co-chair of Disney Media Networks and president of Disney/ABC TV Group
  • Steered company through new digital age, including downloading from iTunes

Leading Women connects you to extraordinary women of our time. Each week, we profile women at the top of their field, exploring their careers, lives and ideas.

(CNN) -- When you're the head of one of the biggest broadcast networks in the world, the last thing you want to hear from your teenage daughter is that they don't want a TV in their home.

"That wasn't gonna fly. Not for one minute," says Anne Sweeney, co-chair of Disney Media Networks and president of the Disney/ABC Television Group, after her daughter moved to college and snubbed the idea of taking the ubiquitous tube.

"I said to her: 'Rosemary, television has been very very good to you. You will have a television if I have to nail it to your wall.'

"And it was one of those 'Mom, you don't understand. I watch everything online now.'"

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Anne Sweeney might be one of the most powerful people in television -- overseeing ABC TV, ABC Studios, and Disney Channels Worldwide. But when it comes to predicting trends, her two children have always been ahead of the pack.

"I've always said, if you want to know what the future is, ask a nine-year-old because they're just so adept," said the 56-year-old, who Fortune named the 18th most powerful woman in business.

"What they taught me was to be less parochial, less conventional, to be more daring. They were so free to experiment with technology. I remember my son putting a piece of liquorice into the VCR and not understanding why he couldn't see it on the television set."

The future of television

"Create what's next," has become Sweeney's motto, and under her leadership she's steered the company through a brave new world where watching television is no longer about families gathering around a hulking black box in the corner of the room.

Indeed, in 2005 she got a call from Apple's Steve Jobs -- "I thought, 'that's cool, I've always wanted to talk to Steve Jobs'" -- about a new piece of technology, the video iPod.

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"As I held the video iPod in my hand I thought, 'I really like this.' I was watching an episode of Lost -- the sound was pristine, the quality of the picture was excellent.

"No one knew that that would be the beginning of probably the biggest moment in our television group -- this move towards technology that would make our content available wherever you are, on whatever device you're holding at that moment."

Under Sweeney, Disney/ABC Television Group became the first media company to put television content on new platforms -- eventually selling videos on iTunes. It's something we now take for granted as we watch our favorite programs in the palm of our hands.

In 2006, it also became the first network to stream full episodes online, winning an Emmy for technical innovation.

Day in the life

Not bad for someone critics initially said didn't have enough experience for the top job at Disney/ABC. Funnily enough, Sweeney agrees.

"I knew they were right," she said, joining the company in 1996 after working 12 years at Nickelodeon's Nick at Nite in various executive positions, and later as chairman and CEO of FX Networks, Inc. for three years.

"I didn't have the experience. But I really didn't care what people said because I was so excited to lead ABC," she says, adding: "My strategy was to go in and learn."

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Today, Sweeney heads almost 10,000 employees, overseeing 107 channels in 166 countries.

Working for Rupert Murdoch was like being handed a saddle, given a horse, and told to ride fast
Anne Sweeney

This is a woman who rises at 4.30 am every morning, receiving anywhere between 300 and 500 emails each day -- "I read through them quickly, and I delegate well,' she says.

Mom's the word

Growing up in New York, Sweeney's mother was a teacher, her father a school principal, and she describes her mom as both her first mentor and a "powerhouse."

Her dream job as a child was to be a ballerina and later an actress.

Sweeney received a masters in education from Harvard University, before landing a job at Nickelodeon in the early 1980s, and in 1993 moved to FX Networks, Inc.

"Going to FOX and working for Rupert Murdoch was like being handed a saddle and given a horse and just told to ride, go fast," she says. "There was tremendous creative freedom."

Family first

Her "favorite job," however is being a mom to Rosemary and son Christopher -- who is autistic. It's a job she says she couldn't do without the help of her husband and "absolutely magnificent" father of her children, Philip Miller, who lives with her in Burbank, California.

When it comes to caring for Christopher, she says: "Don't be the martyr, don't be the hero parent, talk openly about it. Because I found that the more I talked about it, the more people came up to me and would whisper: 'My child is autistic.' And I realized that some people felt that there was a stigma and I thought: 'Oh, I don't feel a stigma.'"

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So does Anne Sweeney "have it all?"

"Is it hard to work and have kids? Absolutely," she says.

"And look at how many tens of millions of mothers do this in this country every single day. You know to me, 'having it all' is having your love. It's that simple."

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