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Dana Walden — the newly anointed chief of Disney’s TV operations following the shocking Thursday ouster of her longtime boss and mentor, Peter Rice — already appears to have widespread support within the entertainment giant.
And that could prove troublesome for CEO Bob Chapek, whom many outsiders believe orchestrated Rice’s exit to remove a potential rival for his job as Disney’s stock has slid more than 32% in the last six months alone and Chapek has stumbled from one PR blunder to the next.
With Rice out of the picture, Chapek is now surrounded by lieutenants that he elevated, including head of media and entertainment Kareem Daniel. But he’s also leaving himself with fewer and fewer people to point the finger at if the company’s share price doesn’t get a necessary jolt of life, one senior industry executive familiar with the company noted, adding that Chapek’s possible underestimation of Walden may cost him in the long run.
“Dana is much smarter than Bob Chapek,” the insider bluntly told TheWrap.
In Walden’s new role, she has been given the keys to Disney’s original programming kingdom across Disney+, Hulu, FX, Freeform, National Geographic, Disney Channel and ABC. Her ascendance comes at a time when Chapek is under immense scrutiny and appears to be attempting to clear Disney’s executive ranks of potential threats.
“Honestly, it’s shocking because Rice was such an important figure who was really present,” a second Disney insider told TheWrap. “But Dana is also a badass and I’m rooting for her.”
Insiders told TheWrap that Chapek — who’s considered a budget-line thinker coming from a background in Disney’s Parks, Experiences and Products — may have come to view Walden and Rice as an unnecessary redundancy. “My instinct is that Chapek felt [Rice] was an imminent threat and she would be a good soldier because that’s been her history,” a former high-level exec at a rival studio said.
Now Walden, who began her career in public relations, assumes one of the top perches in all of Hollywood. “She won’t be perceived as a CEO candidate immediately, but she is also very capable of the new role she’s stepping into,” a former Hulu staffer told TheWrap. “She has the same level of experience of running a [profit and loss statements] that [Rice] has. She’s a fighter to get to where she is from a publicity exec.”
Over Walden’s multi-decade career, including a quarter century at Fox ahead of Disney’s acquisition three years ago, she’s developed a reputation for her keen eye in developing brand-enhancing content and the ability to nurture key relationships.
While one insider described Rice as “opaque and untrustworthy,” Walden is seen as transparent and disciplined. She has a reputation for being both smart and a quick learner by many in the industry and it’s expected that Disney’s TV divisions — which account for upwards of 300 shows per year — will continue to operate smoothly under her oversight.
“She became very proficient and very good at what she did at Fox,” the former high-level exec said. “With the issues Disney is facing, she becomes the good cop in a sense. Right now, they credit her with a lot of the things that have been successful on the TV side.”
Individuals with experience working inside the Disney ecosystem expressed confidence in her ability to lead a seamless transition, though it remains to be seen how she’ll gel with Chapek’s more data-driven approach to content. This was said to be a source of contention between him and Rice. A former employee at Pinewood Studios, the studio lot that serves as Disney’s London production base, told TheWrap that Rice never seemed to place a significant emphasis on Disney’s streaming content, an area where Chapek has funneled immense resources.
In her new role, Walden will be forced to reckon with Chapek’s high-investment requirements for streaming while simultaneously attempting to stave off the decline of Disney’s linear broadcast and cable networks. The latter segment generated upwards of $2 billion more in fiscal second-quarter revenue than Disney’s streaming divisions and remains a highly profitable business despite the ongoing exodus of traditional pay-TV subscribers in the U.S. And that revenue will be sorely needed to pay down Disney’s $46.6 billion in long-term debt.
At the same time, she must navigate the suddenly precarious waters of streaming profitability following Wall Street’s dramatic pendulum swing on the model’s long-term moneymaking viability. (Disney+ is expected to launch an advertisement-supported tier by the end of the year).
Disney has undergone significant structural change in recent years. The integration of 21st Century Fox has been a multi-year process complete with significant layoffs and asset reallocation. The 2020 departure of longtime CEO Bob Iger, widely considered one of the most successful media executives in history, left Disney with a cloudy future. Chapek’s ascension and restructuring efforts around streaming have endured a series of dramatic highs and concerning lows — which have been compounded by the pandemic’s decimation of core verticals like theatrical films, theme parks and cruise ships.
With Rice’s abrupt exit, the “upper management level” may be feeling wary about additional changes (read: layoffs), according to the Disney insider, though there isn’t a sense of widespread tension at the company in the immediate aftermath of the news. Similarly, a current staffer at ESPN, which is largely insulated from the rest of Disney’s sprawling TV empire, noted that the “news doesn’t really play here.” Further major shake-ups aren’t expected inside the operation for now.
But should the board lose confidence in Chapek, whose contract is up in February 2023, Walden is already being viewed as a possible choice to become Disney’s first female CEO.
One need only look to Walden’s history for evidence of her career savvy. “Do you know Dana and how many regimes she’s survived?” the veteran executive said, noting that Walden earned a reputation as a loyal lieutenant who also managed to outmaneuver many of her rivals.
Walden joined Disney in 2019 after the company completed its acquisition of 21st Century Fox, where she spent 25 years and carefully navigated a delicate transition from communications to programming. She would soon rise to co-president alongside Gary Newman in what was considered a unique two-pronged leadership setup at the time. Eventually, she was named chairman and CEO of Fox Television Group, overseeing 20th Television and Fox Broadcasting, which she helped rescue from the ratings cellar while having the foresight to champion good relations with new media such as Netflix and Hulu.
Walden managed to emerge unscathed from several restructures while at Fox, including the ouster of former Rupert Murdoch right-hand man Peter Chernin in 2009.
As one of the few top Fox executives to survive the Disney merger’s layoffs, she was appointed chairman of Walt Disney Television upon her arrival. Soon she reorganized the TV team to consolidate its programming operations and put her stamp on the division.
After working for years alongside FX Networks president John Landgraf during their days at Fox, she now outranks the long-standing executive who has become an industry guru for his dissertations on Peak TV and the glut of filmed content. It’s possible this could become a source of tension moving forward. But given Walden’s close ties to Rice over the years, questions remain as to how long she might stay in this new role.
“Walden is a dynamic, collaborative leader and cultural force who has literally transformed our television business into a content powerhouse that consistently delivers the entertainment audiences crave,” Chapek said in an effusive memo to employees Thursday.
Yet the veteran executive warned, “Bob might have thought he brought in somebody less threatening, and may find that not to be the case. Dana is a savvy player.”
Sharon Waxman contributed to this report.
A previous version of this article mistakenly referred to Disney chair Susan Arnold as a former lieutenant of Chapek. Arnold has never worked for Chapek or as a Disney employee. TheWrap regrets the error.