Disney Continues Pursuit of New ABC News Chief

Disney’s search for a new leader for ABC News continues weeks after the company unexpectedly disclosed the former president, James Goldston, would leave the post.

Goldston’s last day came at the end of March and the company has yet to hone in on a candidate to replace him, according to four people familiar with parts of the search process. When ABC News heads like David Westin or Ben Sherwood left in years past, Disney identified a successor. That hasn’t been the case in the current matter.

Disney and ABC News declined to make executives available for comment.

The quest for a news leader comes as ABC News is taking up more space in the company’s overall programming mix. The division has begun to generate more hours for primetime, where live news specials and deep dives into colorful stories have found a broader perch, and as Americans have sought more information about the coronavirus pandemic and the recent presidential election. Original ABC News work is increasingly finding its way to Disney’s Hulu streaming hub, and the company is working to broaden the news content it offers on the live-streaming outlet ABC News Live.

News, once seen as a standalone part of most media conglomerates, has increasingly drawn the interest of corporate management in a time of severe industry flux. Live programming helps TV networks generate some of the bigger mass audiences their advertisers and distributors crave. With more consumers streaming their favorite comedies and dramas, sports and news are left to carry more of the burden of assembling TV’s largest crowds.

Candidates for the top ABC News role have included executives from within Disney as well as people from rival journalism operations, with Peter Rice, chairman of general entertainment content for Disney, running the process. Rice is giving new attention to ABC News after a re-organization of the Disney portfolio that makes the news division a more essential part of his responsibilities. In November, Disney assigned oversight of distribution and monetization of the programming Rice’s division produces to a different executive, Kareem Daniel.

Among those who have been considered for the top news role, according to people familiar with the search process, are Sam Feist, the Washington bureau chief for CNN; Tom Cibrowski, the former senior ABC News executive who had a hand in bolstering ABC’s “Good Morning America” in its battle with “Today” and who now runs Disney’s San Francisco TV station, KGO; Wendy McMahon, president of ABC’s local stations division; Marie Nelson, ABC News’ senior vice president of content strategy; and Jim Bell, the former NBCUniversal executive who supervised “Today,” NBC Sports’ production for the Olympics and “The Tonight Show” during parts of his tenure.

Candidates either declined to comment or could not be reached for comment. Individual candidates’ current status in the process could not be immediately determined. Rice has been vocal in the recent past about his interest in putting someone with strong journalism experience in the role, according to two of the people familiar with the matter.

At the same time, executives have indicated a desire to hire someone who has demonstrated ability in managing talent. ABC News has proven itself to be a restive environment in recent months, drawing scrutiny for reports about the alleged behavior of former senior executive Barbara Fedida toward employees (she denied claims made against her) and for a recent decision to award the bulk of duties related to special reports and breaking news to “World News Tonight” anchor David Muir. His evening news program has become one of the most-watched elements of the ABC schedule. “Good Morning America” and “This Week” anchor George Stephanopoulos had previously handled all breaking-news duties for the network.

The new ABC News chief will be expected to help employees find satisfaction at the news unit, according to two people familiar with the matter, or, if that is not possible, help them understand they might be happier in a different environment.

For the time being, ABC News is being managed by a council of senior executives that includes Rice, Nelson, Derek Medina, an ABC News executive vice president; the executive producers of “World News Tonight” and “Good Morning America,” Almin Karamehmedovic and Michael Corn; and Wendy Fisher, vice president of newsgathering. Many of the unit’s top business decisions are being handled by Rice and Medina, and until the company’s search ends, those executives are likely to continue doing so for the immediate future.

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