Bob Iger’s Early Career at ABC Signaled His Future Success at Disney

Cynthia Littleton
Variety

Bob Iger made his mark as an executive in the 1980s while working for the legendary Roone Arledge at ABC Sports in New York. Iger was ambitious but not flashy — Arledge took up plenty of the spotlight in the department.

But not long after Iger was promoted to VP of programming for ABC Sports in 1987, he was called to Los Angeles to give a presentation at the network’s annual meeting with the managers of its 200 affiliate stations. Iger spoke with such ease and fluency about the division’s plans that he impressed fellow ABC execs watching from the back of the ballroom at the Century Plaza Hotel, a group that included Ted Harbert and then-ABC Entertainment president Brandon Stoddard.

“He recited the entire schedule of ABC’s college football without a single note in hand,” recalls Harbert, who recently stepped down as chairman of NBC Broadcasting. “He had every game, every date in his head. I nudged Brandon and said, ‘That guy’s going to run the company some day.’”

Harbert was right. Within two years of that meeting, Iger succeeded Stoddard as president of entertainment for ABC, a key stop on his path to leading the largest media company in the world.

“I knew Bob was good when I knew him at ABC,” says Tom Murphy, the former CEO of Capital Cities/ABC. “I didn’t know he was as good as the record he’s made for himself at Disney.”

Growing up on Long Island, Iger set his sights on a TV career. After graduating from Ithaca College in 1973, he famously spent five grueling winter months as a weatherman for a local Ithaca TV station. He soon traded upstate New York for New York City, landing at ABC in 1974 as a studio facility supervisor. Two years later, he shifted to a production job at ABC Sports, where he was taken under Arledge’s wing.

Friends and colleagues say Iger’s experiences during his three years as ABC’s head of programming proved crucial to his stewardship of Disney. As the guy who said “yes” and “no” to writers and producers, he developed enormous respect for the value of unique creative forces — just note the acquisitions he’s championed at Disney: Pixar, Marvel, and Lucasfilm.

“That’s been an important part of his success at Disney,” says Murphy, who sold Capital Cities/ABC to Disney in 1995. “When he went out [to L.A.] to run primetime, he befriended creative people and got to know what they did. He really has a talent for appreciating talent.”

As a new arrival to ABC’s West Coast operation in 1989, Iger ingratiated himself to the town by acknowledging his unfamiliarity with the entertainment side of the programming business. He impressed people with his humility and his integrity — he lived up to his word and didn’t shade his opinions in doublespeak. And he was a quick study.

“He did the work,” Harbert says. “He took a stack of scripts home every night. Some people come into these jobs and say, ‘I’m a smart guy; I’ll get this.’ But if you don’t do the work, you get found out pretty quickly. Bob did the work.”

One of Iger’s early friendships was with producer Steven Bochco, who at the time of Iger’s arrival was in the midst of a lucrative multi-series exclusive deal with ABC.

“He expressed real anxiety about not really understanding the process of how you choose shows,” Bochco recalls. “I remember saying, ‘Bob, it’s not rocket science. Trust your gut.’”

Iger wound up being a champion at ABC for “NYPD Blue,” the Bochco/David Milch police drama that pushed the boundaries of content for broadcast TV. The show sparked protests, sent advertisers fleeing (at first), and stoked unrest among ABC affiliates. But Iger kept pushing it up the hill, even when Bochco was ready to give up. “He never quit on it. He believed in it, and he fought for it,” Bochco says.

Moreover, Iger proved to be calm in the face of defeat. Bochco’s “Cop Rock” was a spectacular flop in 1990, but that didn’t lessen Iger’s support of “NYPD Blue.”

By the time “NYPD Blue” premiered in 1993, Iger was back in New York running the entire network. But he made a point of maintaining his relationships in the creative community.

When the much-praised but low-rated series “My So-Called Life” was on the brink of cancelation in 1995, producer Marshall Herskovitz made a last-ditch appeal to Iger as the father of two daughters to support a show that offered a realistic look at the struggles of teenagers.

“I said, ‘Think of this as corporate good work — you’re giving a voice to people who have no voice in the culture,” Herskovitz recalls. To his surprise, Iger responded, and efforts to renew the series were restarted (though by that time, star Claire Danes had other obligations and further complications made it impossible to continue).

Herskovitz marvels at how Iger, even as he rose through the ranks, has remained the same person who can be moved by an emotional argument. “I find him to be one of the best human beings working in the business,” he says. “He has demonstrated the kind of decency and generosity that shows the good guy can win.”

Others who know Iger point to his loyalty and compassion. Nearly three years ago, while Bochco was battling leukemia, Iger began a months-long correspondence that “moved me deeply,” says Bochco.

“There’s a part of Bob that is very laid-back,” Bochco says. “He’s shy on a certain level, but that hides a very big heart.”

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