If you or your children have enjoyed any television at all in the past few decades, your life has been touched in some way by the work of Anne Sweeney. The John A. Coleman Catholic High alum with a resume too expansive for the lead paragraph in a newspaper is one of the most powerful women in Hollywood.
Sweeney’s official titles are co-chair of Disney Media Networks and president of the Disney/ABC Television Group, overseeing the ABC Television Network and Disney Channels Worldwide, as well as various other television and radio networks, Hyperion Publishing and a number of Disney’s equity interests in cable channels under the A&E Networks umbrella.
Sweeney has come a long way from her start in Kingston. If not for her parents, Sweeney might never have found her calling in the same way.
“My mother was an elementary school teacher in the Kingston city school system and my father was an elementary school principal,” Sweeney said during a telephone interview with the Kingston Times this week. “They’re both now retired. They really deserve all of the credit for my love of arts and my love of the theater, and I think it’s because they instilled in us the value of education and the value of reading. I really do believe that that was the beginning for me.”
It actually began around 30 miles north of Kingston in the town of Hudson where Sweeney was born in 1957. Two years later, the family moved to Kingston, where Sweeney went to the former Elementary School No. 3, or Brigham Elementary. She also attended M. Clifford Miller Middle School before moving to Coleman.
“It was a choice that my parents gave me,” Sweeney said. “I went to Coleman when it was a very new school. I really wanted to go there and my parents supported my decision.”
At Coleman, Sweeney found herself drawn to literature and theater.
“I always had a great love of literature, so English class was very important to me,” she said. “When I was at Coleman, children’s theater was really what Coleman was known for; that and a great soccer team.”
Sweeney’s love of literature began quite a few years earlier.
“There was a really sweet children’s library on the corner by Kingston High School, and we would go up every week for story time,” Sweeney said. “And that’s where I heard some of the great early stories in my life. And I think that was the beginning of an interest in the arts, which led to an interest in television and the creation of stories for television.”
Great teachers, too
It’s no surprise that with parents who were educators, Sweeney’s path through elementary, middle and high school in the area was enriched by the guidance of some of the many teachers she encountered along the way.
“I had a very strong experience in elementary school, and very traditional, but wonderful teachers throughout middle school,” Sweeney said. “(At Coleman) there were so many standout teachers. I think what distinguished them all is they really focused their attention on, not only what we needed to learn, but what our passions were. And they encouraged us, whether it was, ‘You might like to read this,’ or, ‘Gee, if you like that author you might love this one.’ Coleman had a fantastic library, and I remember spending many, many hours there. I was either on the stage or in the library.”
One Coleman teacher in particular played an important role in Sweeney’s connection to the theater: soon-to-be-retired Kingston City School District Superintendent Gerard Gretzinger.
“Gerry Gretzinger was actually a Spanish teacher and in charge of children’s theater and truly encouraged my love of theater,” Sweeney said. “He was a terrific director of our theater program, and I’ve watched his career with great interest.”
With so many teachers having a positive impact on her educational development, Sweeney’s initial career choice was to become an educator herself. She began her studies at the College of New Rochelle, a private women’s Catholic college in Westchester County. She soon realized that perhaps becoming a teacher wasn’t the right move after all.
“When I went to college, I was determined to be a teacher,” Sweeney said. “I took my first child psych course, and part of the course was spending in the campus child studies center. I called my mother after the first session at the child studies center, and I said, ‘I can’t do this. I can’t be responsible for teaching kids how to read. I’m not you.’ And my mother was uncharacteristically quiet during this whole rant. And when I was done, she said, ‘Well, now you have to figure out what it is you want to do.’ Just when you want your mother to tell you what to do, the only time in your life when you want your mother to tell you what to do, she turns around and surprises you. That was freshman year, and I spent the next three years trying to figure out what I wanted to do and learning what my strengths and weaknesses were. And I boiled it down to wanting to do something for children, but I was not cut out to be a teacher.”
The path becomes clear
During her junior year, Sweeney was doing a lot of theater, and a chance conversation with one of the male students from another school brought in to fill out the male cast in a play that officially kicked off her career in television.
“One night a guy came in, and he was wearing a navy blue blazer with a patch that said ‘ABC’ on it,” Sweeney said. “I said, ‘Oh, wow: Where’d you get that?’ And he said, ‘I’m a page at ABC.’ And I said, ‘What does a page do?’ And he said, ‘It is the best job in the world. You work on all of these different shows. You never know day to day where they’re going to put you, but you’ll work news and radio and game shows, and it’s just amazing.’ And I said, ‘Gee, can you introduce me?’ So he introduced me to the head of the pages.”
Sweeney was hired as a page during her senior year of college.
“I thought this was the coolest thing in the world,” she said. “Whether it was working ‘Good Morning America’ where the call was5 a.m., or — and in those days it was a lot of money — ‘$20,000 Pyramid’ with Dick Clark. It was news and radio, and we had WABC and WPLJ. It was just fascinating.”
Soon after, Sweeney had an internship with “Sesame Street” and, seeing a potential path to realize her dreams of helping children, earned her master’s degree in education from Harvard.
“I was starting to put together, in my own mind, this world of working for kids, this world of television, and I started to see what I loved about it,” she said. “But I quickly came to realize that I didn’t have the background I needed to do the work I wanted to do for kids.”
The network Pinwheel was launched in late 1977 with children’s programming at the core of its small market cable television thrust. In April 1979, Pinwheel became Nickelodeon, airing on cable television in places likeBuffalo,New Yorkand elsewhere. Less than two years later, Sweeney entered the picture.
“I arrived at Nickelodeon in January of 1981, and I was there for just over 12 years,” she said. “It was wonderful. There were 10 of us, and every year we would write a budget but we would also write a shutdown scenario because we didn’t know if we’d be around. No one had ever done a channel just for kids. In those days it was 12 hours, but then it expanded to 24 hours and included Nick at Nite.”
Sweeney held a number of executive positions at Nickelodeon, her last before departing as senior vice president of Program Enterprises. But in spite of helping the network grow by leaps and bounds during her time there, what Sweeney remembers most fondly is that she still felt every day like she had about television during her time as an ABC page.
“I focused on living every day,” she said. “I never looked ahead. I just kept thinking, ‘Wow, this is amazing!’ My understanding about how television was made was totally changed. I think it was ‘Good Morning America,’ the live show: I remember the day someone told me that I could stand on the studio floor if I didn’t move and didn’t breathe. And it was one of the most exciting moments watching television happening and realizing how hard those jobs really are. I’m so privileged to run this today, and I can honestly tell you that the culture then is the culture now. It really is a place where people want each other to succeed.”
The foundation of power
Sweeney has won numerous awards as a media professional, has earned accolades from colleagues and those outside the industry. She’s been repeatedly named “The Most Powerful Woman in Entertainment” by the Hollywood Reporter, has been listed among Fortune Magazine’s “50 Most Powerful Women in Business” and Forbes’ “World’s 100 Most Powerful Women.” She’s also still deeply connected to theKingstonarea, where her parents still live and where she has friends from back in her days inKingstonschools and at Coleman High. If not for her education here inKingston, she figures, she might not be where she is today.
“I really do believe that a lot of my success was due to a really good, strong education,” she said. “I had tremendous teachers who recognized my interests.”
As for kids in the area who might want to follow a similar career trajectory into the world of television and entertainment, Sweeney had a few suggestions on how to get it started.
“I think having a strong foundation in literature is key, especially if you’re going into a creative area,” she said. “I think it’s very, very important to understand story. I would emphasize the importance of great English teachers.”
Likewise, the theater is also a key.
“I think being exposed to performance early and understanding performance is very important,” she said. “I didn’t become an actor, but I have tremendous respect for actors, their work and their craft and how hard it is. Really understanding theater has been really important for me.”