The second Media Mastermind keynote today at MIPCOM was Anne Sweeney, co-chair of Disney Media Networks and president of Disney/ABC Television Group. And while she’s been regularly named one of the most powerful women in entertainment, in fact she’s one of the most influential executives in entertainment full-stop: no gender clarification required. She was interviewed at MIPCOM by Anna Carugati, group editorial director at World Screen.
“The beauty of Disney is that it speaks a universal language to kids and to families. Disney as a brand touches on issues and emotions and feelings that people have all around the world,” she said. “You look at the success of Frozen – and I’m not singing Let It Go today! – we have seen globally an incredible emotional response to the story of these two sisters. And the song Let It Go has been very important not just for kids, but for parents as well… More unites us than divides us.”
Sweeney said that Disney thinks of itself in two ways: first as a content engine on the production side, but also as a company that uses technology to “make everything that we do better”. Including creating technology: she cited the ABC.com player that launched in 2005/2006 as a way to stream episodes of TV shows. “We were the first broadcast network to put our shows on Netflix. We were the first to create a Watch app… Not just because we could, but because it gave us a way to be closer to our consumers.”
Not to mention a famous deal with iTunes in 2005. “That first moment when we realised we could be somewhere other than television. DVDs, yes, and video tapes before. But I do remember Steve Jobs walking in with the video iPod. I still have one! I kept it in a drawer. I was enjoying watching Lost, which is such a big show, on this tiny screen… If I’m enjoying this experience, it’s quite possible that many other people will enjoy it too.”
Sweeney talked about how children are taking to new technologies at a rapid pace. But what does that mean for linear channels? “The key is remaining relevant. I think the linear channels are still wonderful, they’re still a great business for our company… but what we realise going on is they’re not the only business we should be in with our content,” she said.
“There are still certain types of viewing that people do on the television sets: big live events, the Oscars had record numbers this past year. Certainly the Super Bowl is something you would be watching in the moment on a big screen… But the change that we’ve seen is the uptick in DVR usage. We have seen people start to, oddly, put their lives first and television second! You didn’t used to have a means to catch up on episodes, but now you have many ways.”
She also talked about shows like Scandal, where its stars are tweeting live as the show airs, turning it into TV that people want to watch when it’s on, rather than just time-shifting it. “They have made that absolutely must-see moment,” she said. Pretty Little Liars predated Scandal, but has even higher Twitter traffic. “They really did click into, again, the community aspect of Pretty Little Liars, and the mystery… to just give the Twitter audience enough to go on,” she said. “Every new technology taps into a different piece of our brains, and certainly the way we use it.”
Sweeney was asked about surprises and successes in recent years. One was the creation of the Watch apps referred to earlier. “The Watch apps required every single member of our team coming together at the very best and very highest levels that they could achieve. This was something that we had actually planned to release in May of this year, and in January of 2013, I’d been watching a lot of people on their phones, and I think I was actually in the grocery store one day, watching this use of technology. And I started to feel very anxious that we would be left behind… we weren’t answering the call of consumers. We weren’t available, we weren’t on their phones. So I asked if we could move the date of the release of the Watch apps up a year.”
Sweeney talked about watching video footage of children curled up together on a sofa using the Watch app to watch Disney shows. “Sometimes it isn’t about the size of the screen. Sometimes it’s about the experience. Sometimes that can be inspired by a relationship, and sometimes by your relationship to the content we’re giving you.”
What comes next? “I believe the greatest gift you’re given is curiosity. I started the professional part of my career on the creative side, and that was something that drove me into television… and then I started in the cable industry at a very early stage when there was still a lot of hands-on for executives,” she said. But over time, she got more distant from the creative by the necessities of her job, and has recently been thinking about what she wants to do next. “I started to think about the creative side. I started to think about the thing that I really didn’t get to do on a full-time basis,” she said. “What I’m going to do as of January 31st next year is take the plunge, apply to some directing workshops, and explore the creative side.” And that was a wrap.