Peter Rice, the president of Walt Disney Co.’s TV content division, was fired from the Burbank-based entertainment giant in a move that is sure to drive Hollywood crazy.
Rice was replaced by his lieutenant, Dana Walden, who was previously head of entertainment at Walt Disney Television, Disney said Thursday. The change takes effect immediately.
Rice, a widely admired TV veteran, was fired for “cultural adaptation” issues, according to people familiar with the matter who were not allowed to comment.
Walden, who like Rice joined Disney three years ago as part of the asset acquisition of 21st Century Fox, becomes president of Disney General Entertainment Content, the programming division of ABC, Disney Television Studios, Freeform, FX. , National Geographic Content and other Brands. Walden’s portfolio will also include ABC News and content made for streaming channels like Hulu.
“Dana is a dynamic and collaborative leader and cultural force who in just three years has transformed our television business into a content powerhouse that consistently satisfies the desire of the entertainment audience,” said Disney CEO Bob Chapek in an email to the staff announcing the decision.
“Dana is one of the most experienced and respected executives in the industry, and her well-deserved reputation for supporting creative talent and developing programs that capture the cultural spirit of the time has led to success after success for us.”
The move also removes an executive widely considered a potential threat to Chapek’s leadership.
Rice, a former 21st Century Fox executive who excelled in the hardscrabble culture of Rupert Murdoch’s entertainment empire, has been speculated as a possible successor to Chapek during a tough time for the company. Even before Chapek’s rise, Rice was often mentioned, along with Kevin Mayer, as someone who could have replaced Bob Iger.
The entertainment industry was abuzz with Chapek’s handling of the political firestorm unleashed by opposition to Florida’s parental rights law in education, which LGBTQ advocates and Disney employees consider anti-gay. Governor Ron DeSantis criticized the company as a “woken up” company and the Florida legislature voted to deprive Disney of its special self-government privileges in the area that includes the Walt Disney World Resort.
Disney shares are struggling, along with those of many other companies, amid fears of an economic downturn and concerns about the state of the streaming business, which Chapek has made Disney’s top priority. Disney +, the company’s app competing with Netflix, recently reached 137.7 million subscribers, but some analysts doubt the service will reach its goal of 230 million members by 2024.
The combination of factors has led some industry observers to wonder if Chapek’s tenure at the top of the company was in jeopardy.
But Disney president Susan Arnold signaled support for Chapek in a statement Thursday.
“The strength of The Walt Disney Company’s business as it emerges from the pandemic is a testament to Bob’s leadership and vision for the future of the company,” said Arnold. “In this important time of business growth and transformation, we are committed to keeping Disney on the path to success it has taken today, and Bob and his leadership team have the support and trust of the Board.”
Rice’s ouster is the latest shock for Disney. Disney’s top communications executive, Geoff Morrell, was expelled in April due to the Florida scandal.
Rice, who was taken aback by the decision to fire him, did not adapt well to the company’s new regime, according to insiders. Chapek took over as CEO of Iger in 2020 and reorganized the company, separating content activities from distribution decisions, which ruffled the feathers within the organization, especially among high-level executives accustomed to. to have relative autonomy.
Distribution decisions, whether to send shows to traditional Disney channels or put them on streaming services, have been entrusted to Kareem Daniel, who runs a division called Disney Media & Entertainment Distribution. The reorganization also took away the financial decisions from programmers, including Rice, and gave that power to Daniel.
The facility created tensions between Rice and Daniel, a longtime deputy Chapek at Disney, according to people familiar with the matter who were not allowed to comment publicly.
However, Disney insiders were surprised at the timing of the decision, as Rice’s contract was extended last year and he had just been on stage with Daniel weeks ago at the company’s early presentation to advertisers. Now, Disney will have to pay Rice’s contract for the remaining two and a half years.
Chapek called Rice for a meeting on Wednesday and told him he had been fired.
In the meeting, which lasted less than 10 minutes, Chapek told Rice that he was not “suitable” and that Chapek wanted his person to lead the team.
At Walden, Chapek felt he had an executive who not only has the talent, but also has the collaborative nature to run a huge creative organization.
Chapek also wanted to simplify a structure he inherited when he took over Disney, where television content was governed by two high-profile executives, according to people familiar with the matter.
Already one of Hollywood’s most powerful women, Walden’s elevation adds to her weight in a business that has long been devoid of female executive leadership.
Walden also joined Disney through the 2019 acquisition of Fox assets. Known for her talent-friendly approach and a track record of success at Disney Television Studios, Walden oversaw the division in charge of ABC’s “Abbott Elementary” and Hulu originals “Only Murders in the Building”, “Dopesick” and “The Dropout”.