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Chairman of Fox's fX Networks Resigns to Head Disney Channel

Television: Anne Sweeney is expected to focus on raising unit's visibility, adding subscribers.

February 22, 1996|SALLIE HOFMEISTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Anne Sweeney has resigned as chairman and chief executive of Fox Broadcasting Co.'s fX Networks to become president of Walt Disney Co.'s Disney Channel, filling a position vacated a year ago by John Cooke, who now heads corporate affairs in the company's executive suite.

Sweeney becomes the first major hire by Geraldine Laybourne, the builder of Viacom Inc.'s successful Nickelodeon network, who joined Capital Cities/ABC Inc. earlier this month as president of Disney/ABC Cable Networks. Though the Disney Channel is highly profitable, it has far fewer subscribers and lower visibility than Nickelodeon--a problem Sweeney is expected to address.

In addition to her duties at the Disney Channel, Sweeney, 38, will serve as an executive vice president of Disney/ABC Cable, assisting Laybourne in building the networks acquired in Disney's recently completed purchase of Capital Cities.

Disney now owns stakes in A&E Television, Lifetime and the History Channel, and plans to launch a 24-hour news network later this year. While Capital Cities also owns ESPN, the sports network was not incorporated into Laybourne's group, continuing to report directly to Robert Iger, president of Capital Cities, which is now a subsidiary of Disney.

"Working with these brands and launching new networks is a great opportunity," said Sweeney, who launched two cable networks, fX and the tiny fXM: Movies from Fox, during her three years at Fox. "This is a big playing field and the company is well-positioned."

Rumors have circulated that Sweeney would join Disney since Laybourne's first day on the new job, which she spent at the Disney Channel. Sweeney was senior vice president of program enterprises at Nickelodeon under Laybourne.

No successor has been named at fX, and staff members said its six senior executives would probably divide up Sweeney's responsibilities while Chase Carey, the head of Fox Television, searches for a replacement.

Sweeney's contract with Fox does not expire until June.

Fox sources said Sweeney's authority over the network has changed since she was hired by Rupert Murdoch to launch fX. Under a deal struck last year that is still pending, fX will become half owned by Liberty Media Corp., the cable programming arm of Tele-Communications Inc. that is Fox's joint-venture partner in a new sports network to compete against ESPN. Now, Sweeney, who once reported directly to Murdoch, will report to a joint-venture board. "It's not what she originally bought in to," a Fox executive said.

As a result of the Liberty-Fox sports partnership, fX, which has grown to 26 million subscribers since its launch in mid-1994, will run Major League Baseball games starting in 1997. It recently acquired the rights to "X-Files" and "NYPD Blue" reruns. One of its most critically acclaimed programs, "Breakfast Time," was recently pulled off the channel to run on the Fox TV network.

It is unclear how Sweeney will redirect the Disney Channel, which has 16 million subscribers, and has steadily been converting itself from a premium to a basic service. But Disney sources said it would likely continue to be commercial-free, with a stronger emphasis on its core children's and family programming.

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