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Time for a Woman (News) President

September 28, 2010

Forget for a moment that the U.S. has never had a female president. How about a female president of a national broadcast news network? Nope – turns out we haven’t done that yet either. As David Westin steps down from his position as ABC News President, it might be time to smash that particular pane of the glass ceiling. Jeff Zucker just resigned as President and CEO of NBC, and his male replacement has already been announced. In 2000, women were 50.9 percent of the population. In 2008, according to the Media Report to Women, the percentage of female TV news directors reached a record high – of 28.3 percent.  In the 2009-2010 prime-time television season, women comprised 22 percent of executive producers and 39 percent of producers. They own about 5 percent of all TV stations. Call me mathematically inept (as long as we’re dealing with gender biases), but something seems wrong with those proportions. Glynnis MacNicol of Mediaite.com has provided a list of potential candidates for Westin’s position. On the list is Alexandra Wallace, Executive Producer of NBC Nightly News, who has been working to combat the viewer decline that began before she took the job in March of 2007.  MacNicol also mentions Rebecca Campbell, President of ABC’s Television Stations Group, who has over twenty-five years of local broadcasting experience, and Kate O’Brian, ABC Senior VP of News Coverage, a 27-year veteran of ABC who worked her way up from a starting position as a television desk assistant and has won two award for September 11thcoverage. With candidates like these,  MacNicol points out, there is no excuse for the complete absence of women from these positions. Anne Sweeney, president of ABC Cable Networks Group and president of Disney Channel Worldwide, will be in charge of hiring the new president. A twenty-nine year TV veteran with a Masters in Education from Harvard, Sweeney worked her way up from a page job at ABC to Disney Channel President, increasing Disney’s subscriptions from 19 million to 79 million households in her first two years. In 2004, when she was named Most Powerful Woman in Hollywood by the Hollywood Reporter, editor Christy Grosz commented that Sweeney “has a bigger job than any other woman working in television today."  Thus, Sweeney is a unique position to deepen that Powerful Woman pool. The next president of ABC News is going to face challenges. In April, about 400 people were bought out or laid off from the company, and viewership is steadily declining for all the network news companies. Sweeney’s pick must be competent, energetic, and excited about the work. Frank Sesno, director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University, jokes that the new president will also need “a vivid imagination and a very thick flak jacket.” In the past few years, Disney has replaced three high-level staff members with relatively non-traditional choices – the new chief of the movie studio had no previous movie experience; the new head of entertainment operations had no broadcast experience, and the cable network is now headed by the old head of the radio unit. But in one way, these new staffers distinctly resemble the people they replaced: every one, old and new, is male. Maybe Disney just can’t see a woman wearing a flak jacket. But Sweeney should take a look through her front closet, pull out a spare, and hand it over, along with a contract, to the new, female ABC News president.

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