When the Walt Disney Company unveiled much of its new TV networks organizational structure Monday, it didn’t come with many surprises: As expected, Peter Rice will assume oversight as chairman of Walt Disney Television and co-chair of Disney Media Networks once the company closes its acquisition of 21st Century Fox.
Under Rice, as previously reported, Dana Walden has been named chairman of Disney TV Studios and ABC Entertainment, while John Landgraf will continue to oversee FX Networks and FX Productions as chairman. National Geographic Partners chairman Gary Knell, Disney Channels Worldwide president/COO Gary Marsh and ABC News president James Goldston will also answer to Rice.
With long-time 21st Century Fox execs taking over key Disney TV oversight, Burbank’s about to feel a lot more like Century City. And that’s clearly Disney CEO Bob Iger’s goal: “The strength of 21st Century Fox’s first-class management talent has always been a compelling part of this opportunity for us,” he said in a statement.
But Monday’s announcement still leaves plenty of burning questions when it comes to how things will eventually shake out once the deal is finalized and Rice, Walden, Landgraf, and Knell officially put on their Mouse ears. Here’s what to keep an eye on in the coming months:
What changes will Walden make to ABC Entertainment, and how does that impact Channing Dungey?
Walden will have oversight over several divisions, including studios, the Freeform network and the ABC-owned TV stations group. But ABC Entertainment will be by far the most high profile. Walden and Dungey worked together in the past, but with Walden as the seller (as head of 20th Century Fox TV) and Dungey as the buyer (ABC runs 20th shows including “Modern Family” and “Fresh Off the Boat”), in addition to being competitors. That’s made for an adversarial situation, but now they’re on the same team. What does Walden want out of Dungey? Or does she want her own person running ABC? The Alphabet network is off to a tepid fall, landing in fourth place among adults 18-49 during premiere week.
Will ABC Studios and 20th Century Fox TV be merged, and when?
For now, both studios will continue to operate separately under ABC Studios president Patrick Moran and 20th Century Fox TV presidents Jonathan Davis and Howard Kurtzman, with all three executives reporting to Walden. But in the long term, it doesn’t really make sense to keep two different infrastructures — the whole point of mergers like this one are the financial savings once operations are merged.
Interestingly, although Davis and Kurtzman already report to Walden and are moving with her to Disney, Moran also spent years working for Walden — as senior VP of drama at 20th, overseeing the development of shows such as “Glee” before joining ABC in 2010. That means Walden has a surplus of studio execs in her arsenal, and that doesn’t even include Fox 21 Television studios president Bert Salke, who has his own portfolio of programming. Meanwhile, if she does merge 20th Century Fox TV and ABC Studios, besides figuring out the new management structure, Walden would have to decide the new studio branding, and how it might communicate the amount of product the studio will aim to produce in-house vs. for other outlets.
Where does Disney’s Hulu investment, as well as its new streaming service, play into this?
Once the 21st Century Fox acquisition is complete, Disney will hold a 60 percent stake in the streaming service. Given its high-caliber original programming (“The Handmaid’s Tale”), on par with FX-style content, there has been some speculation that Landgraf might add some Hulu responsibilities to his oversight. But that wasn’t a part of Monday’s announcement. Disney’s new streaming service, reportedly to be called “Disney Play,” also continues to apparently operate under a separate plane, under Ricky Strauss.
What kinds of layoffs and other changes are in store?
Reports have suggested that as many as 5,000 positions will be eliminated in TV and film, from both Disney and Fox, once the deal is done and redundancies are identified. “Disney expects over $2 billion in synergies from the Fox acquisition, with the overwhelming majority of that from cost-savings–meaning job cuts,” BTIG analyst Rich Greenfield wrote in a report last year. “In order to reduce costs by upwards of $2 billion, we believe Disney will need to cut well over 5,000 jobs.”
Is Peter Rice truly in line to succeed Iger at Disney?
We’ve heard this before, of course, and the search for a Bob Iger successor has been a Hollywood parlor game for years. Tom Staggs was seen as the likely candidate, but he was pushed out in 2015. Disney Media Networks co-chair and Disney/ABC TV president Ben Sherwood was on the rise at one point, but now he’ll be leaving the company once the 21st Century Fox acquisition is finalized. Other names bandied about have included Disney parks and resorts boss Bob Chapek, and Kevin Mayer, Disney’s direct-to-consumer/international chairman. In the meantime, Iger has continued to extend his contract at Disney, which he will now lead through December 2021. Has he finally found his proper successor? The next three years may serve as a bit of a tryout for Rice, who has something else in his favor: Rupert Murdoch, who will now be one of Disney’s biggest shareholders.
What will the ‘New Fox’ culture look like without Rice, Walden, and Landgraf?
Fox TV Group chairman Gary Newman is negotiating to continue running a slimmed-down Fox network once most of the 21st Century Fox assets decamp for Disney — giving the broadcaster some continuity. But Newman and Walden have been a team since 1999, and have run the Fox network together since 2014, so this will also represent a tremendous adjustment for the folks left behind. Disney will continue to sublet space on the Fox lot in Century City, which means entities like FX will stay physically put for now — but suddenly, Fox network staffers who run into 20th Century Fox TV or FX colleagues on the way to the cafeteria will have to contend with the surreal reality that they now work for completely separate corporate entities. Helping cushion the change at Fox is that the network’s new strategy already appears to be working: With “Thursday Night Football” and more mainstream fare like “Last Man Standing,” the network is off to a strong fall.