Path of Dana Walden to Become First Female CEO of Disney Despite Criticism

In 1994, a leader in the media and entertainment sector recognized Dana Walden’s potential for greater responsibilities.

Three decades later, history may repeat itself.

Back then, Peter Chernin, the head of 20th Century Fox Filmed Entertainment and later News Corp’s president and COO, identified Walden’s talents and shifted her from Fox’s corporate communications to television.

Fast forward to 2024, Bob Iger, Disney’s CEO, is contemplating Walden as his successor, sources familiar with the matter reveal. If appointed, Walden would become the first female CEO in Disney’s century-long history.

During her early tenure at 20th Century Fox, Walden, working in publicity, made a memorable impact by presenting at a company retreat in Santa Barbara, California.

Keen on catching Chernin’s attention, now chairman and CEO of The Chernin Group, Walden boldly criticized Fox’s approach to talent acquisition, advocating for bolder strategies to secure top shows.

Walden’s spokesperson confirmed this presentation’s details.

When the retreat concluded, Chernin promptly reached out to Peter Roth, then president of 20th Century Fox Television, who would later head Warner Bros.’ TV division.

“The next day she was in my office, and we gave her a job in programming,” Roth recalled in an interview.

This pivotal moment marked a trajectory shift for Walden, propelling her towards the possibility of succeeding Iger.

Currently serving as co-chair of Disney Entertainment, Walden finds herself in internal competition with Disney Experiences Chairman Josh D’Amaro, ESPN Chairman Jimmy Pitaro, and Alan Bergman, her co-chair in Entertainment. These individuals, familiar with the matter, disclosed that discussions remain confidential, hence their anonymity.

Reportedly, Iger intends to appoint a successor and remain at Disney to mentor them before departing by the end of 2026, as per CNBC’s September report. Amidst this transition, Iger faces pressure to safeguard Disney’s future amidst a challenge from Nelson Peltz of Trian Partners.

Peltz has asserted his position, advocating for his involvement in the successor search, citing Iger’s repeated postponements of retirement and his return to the role following Bob Chapek’s dismissal in 2022.

Peltz contends that the Disney board lacks the credibility to manage the succession process. The shareholders will vote on Peltz’s candidacy for the board during the upcoming annual meeting on Wednesday.

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Privately, several Disney executives confided to CNBC their belief that Walden, aged 59, is the frontrunner for the top position, although they lack insider information on the process. Their close association with Walden might influence their perception.

Factors such as her close relationship with Iger (residing just blocks away from his home in Brentwood, California), her track record of success in television, her trust among Disney board members, and the significance of having a female executive all contribute to her favorability.

“She’s the single best talent exec to come out of TV in the last 20 years,” remarked Chernin in an interview.

“She would be an outstanding CEO,” Roth echoed. “Absolutely outstanding.”

For this story, Walden opted not to provide a comment. Over 20 colleagues and friends shared their insights with CNBC regarding her strengths, weaknesses, and the likelihood of her succeeding Iger.

Allies of Walden informed CNBC that she refuses to engage in discussions about succession with them, although many admitted to teasing her about it. Instead, she remains focused on her current role of overseeing Disney Entertainment alongside Bergman.

Despite her dedication, Walden faces tough competition from other division heads within Disney.

Over the past thirty years, Walden has dedicated herself to producing television hits, lacking the breadth of responsibilities held by Pitaro, who has led the company’s sports media empire since 2018.

Additionally, Walden lacks experience in managing parks and resorts, which Iger and the board may prioritize over the TV business given the uncertain financial status of the streaming era.

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In interviews with CNBC, six former colleagues who closely collaborated with Walden privately expressed doubts about her business acumen.

“There are people that are in creative positions that rise to a level of management who figure out what a P&L [profit and loss] statement is, what a balance sheet is, what quarterly earnings are,” remarked one source, requesting anonymity to speak freely.

“Dana doesn’t really bother with any of that.”

Another former colleague expressed skepticism about Walden’s suitability for the role of Disney CEO, noting the job’s demands for close investor engagement, helming geopolitical deals for parks and resorts, and strategic decision-making regarding acquisitions and investments.

“She’ll be eaten up by real investors,” remarked the individual, who also chose to remain anonymous. “Does she possess the requisite depth of business acumen? She can learn, but you can’t absorb decades of finance, business, and tactics in a year or two.”

However, supporters of Walden dismissed these concerns as either inaccurate or reflective of persistent biases against female executives. They highlighted Walden’s interactions with numerous institutional investors throughout her tenure at Disney.

“There’s something about looking at female execs where questions are asked that would never be asked of men,” remarked Jennifer Salke, head of Amazon Studios and a former colleague of Walden’s. “Can they scale? Can a creative person be a business leader? I find that to be a huge bugaboo. She’s in charge of billions of dollars of assets, but she’s not capable of being a business leader?”

Walden’s supporters dismiss critiques from former Disney colleagues as either stemming from lingering resentment toward former Fox employees who joined Disney through the $71 billion acquisition of Fox’s entertainment assets in 2019, or possibly driven by a desire to undermine Walden’s chances of becoming CEO in favor of their preferred candidates.

“As it stands, everyone in a leadership position had a background before assuming their current roles,” remarked Chernin. “Whoever they select will have never held the position of Disney CEO before.”

Hollywood links

Chernin and Walden ventured on their careers in public relations, placing them among a select group of TV executives who followed that path — former HBO head Richard Plepler being another notable example. Chernin perceived Walden’s background as a strength rather than a weakness.

“She understands that nothing is more vital to a studio than fostering talent relationships,” remarked Craig Hunegs, who collaborated closely with Walden during his tenure as president of Disney TV Studios from 2019 to 2021.

Walden’s roots are deeply entwined with Hollywood. Raised in modest circumstances in Studio City, a neighborhood of Los Angeles, she attended the private Westlake School for Girls (a precursor to the coeducational Harvard-Westlake School), where she struck up a friendship with Carol Burnett’s daughter, Carrie Hamilton.

Mastering the TV business

During their tenure at Fox, Walden and fellow TV executive Gary Newman assumed joint leadership of the studio business — the powerhouse behind the company’s production of series for both internal and external networks.

Path of Dana Walden to Become First Female CEO of Disney Despite Criticism
Walden’s rise: from Fox’s TV division to Disney’s helm.

From 1999 onwards, they held this position for the next 15 years until their promotion to oversee all of Fox Broadcasting in 2014.

Newman, a former attorney, initially focused on handling many of the business aspects of their partnership, while Walden earned a reputation for her adeptness at cultivating relationships with creative talent and demonstrating impeccable taste in both dramas and comedies.

“People used to joke we were work spouses,” recalled Newman in an interview. “She was very good at the job very quickly. It’s just a combination of being smart, being really fast, being curious, being fearless.”

According to Newman and others who have collaborated with her, Walden gradually honed her expertise in the business aspects of television over time.

“The difference between Dana in the beginning of our partnership, when she leaned on her creative background, and where she was a few years later was night and day,” remarked Newman. “She picked up what she needed to pick up about business. I had a surgery at one point — the responsibility fell on Dana to be in there for me. That included being in charge of the business side of things.”

Newman recalled a particularly challenging negotiation over a Fox-produced show with CBS. It was the day before CBS was set to announce its fall schedule, and the fate of the series hung in the balance.

CBS imposed a midnight deadline for revising the deal on its terms, threatening to cancel the show otherwise. Walden, however, saw through the bluff, recognizing the show’s significance as a linchpin for another programming that day.

She convinced Fox to disregard the deadline entirely. The following day, CBS included the series in its lineup, vindicating Walden’s intuition.

“I don’t know if she plays poker, but she’d be a great poker player,” remarked Newman.

Walden forged enduring relationships with TV showrunners and producers who have repeatedly collaborated with her, including MacFarlane, Murphy, “Modern Family” co-creator Steve Levitan, and “This is Us” creator Dan Fogelman.

Her knack for offering insightful creative notes on scripts, particularly in shaping the uniquely structured drama “24,” which ran from 2001 to 2014 and garnered critical acclaim for its innovative storytelling techniques, earned her widespread recognition.

Rick Rosen, a partner and head of TV at talent agency WME, attested to Walden’s impact, noting how her feedback and constructive criticisms played a pivotal role in advancing the show.

“People felt her notes and constructive criticisms helped move that show forward,” recalled Rosen, who represented Howard Gordon, the “24” showrunner at one point. “She helped get it unstuck.”

Walden’s discerning taste, her disciplined approach to managing talent within budget constraints, and her candid assessments of what works and what doesn’t have distinguished her from other executives, according to Levitan.

“Hollywood is a business of relationships,” Levitan remarked. “What you can’t teach somebody is how to inspire people. She is whip-smart. If there is a subject that she needs to take a deep plunge on, she’s going to be an expert in that subject before you know it.”

Entering Disney

Disney’s acquisition of Fox marked a transition for Walden to a new company with a distinct culture. On the day of the deal’s announcement in December 2017, Iger personally reached out to Walden, expressing his desire for her to join Disney, as per sources familiar with the matter. Newman, on the other hand, had intended to remain at Fox but ultimately departed from the company in 2018.

Initially, Walden envisioned leading Disney’s TV unit as a direct report to Iger, according to insiders familiar with her thoughts at the time. However, Iger had his sights set on Peter Rice, Walden’s superior at Fox, for the top position.

Overlooked for the role, Walden contemplated leaving both Disney and the studio she had contributed to building for alternative opportunities, sources revealed.

Despite her disappointment, Walden maintained a strong rapport with Rice, who eventually convinced her to stay. In a turn of events, Walden assumed Rice’s position when Disney dismissed him in 2022.

This decision came after Chapek and certain members of the Disney board concluded that Rice did not align with the company’s culture, citing private criticism of Disney’s messaging surrounding Florida’s controversial “Don’t Say Gay” legislation, according to insiders.

Despite years of receiving positive feedback, Rice was informed by Chapek that he was not a cultural fit. A Disney spokesperson and Rice declined to provide comment on the matter.

“The conversations around selling a series — licensing fees, profit participation, residuals — or discussions about budgets, and how many guest stars we can sign, or which platform a series should air on … all of that I’ve done directly with Dana,” noted Rich Appel, the executive producer and co-showrunner of “Family Guy.” “No disrespect to Gary [Newman], but for the past few years, it’s only been Dana.”

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At Disney, Walden has achieved notable successes, including FX’s “The Bear,” Hulu’s “The Dropout” “Only Murders in the Building,” and ABC’s “Abbott Elementary.” She has also made significant investments in promoting the children’s show “Bluey,” which, in 2024, has ranked as the most-watched show across all streaming services for a period.

Additionally, she has prioritized bolstering Disney+’s family programming with originals such as “Percy Jackson and the Olympians,” “Spidey and His Amazing Friends,” and “Goosebumps.”

However, critics argue that focusing solely on successes overlooks failures. One Disney insider emphasized that evaluating Walden’s performance objectively would necessitate a comprehensive analysis of all the shows she has greenlit.

The anti-Chapek

The aftermath of Iger’s previous successor selection was fraught with challenges. As highlighted by CNBC in 2023, the relationship between Chapek and Iger deteriorated, leading to Chapek’s dismissal by the Disney board.

Less than three years later, Iger returned as CEO, partly driven by a desire to rectify what he perceived as a mistake in appointing Chapek as his successor, according to sources familiar with his perspective. If Iger is seeking a candidate who contrasts with Chapek, Walden fits the bill.

Chapek’s ascent within Disney over three decades was marked by a showcase of his business acumen and financial expertise. He pursued studies in microbiology at Indiana University and earned his MBA from Michigan State University.

His knowledge extended to intricate details within Disney’s parks and resorts, including the nuanced impact of specific hotel discounts on park attendance and the elasticity of seasonal ticket rate adjustments.

However, Chapek lacked significant relationships within Hollywood. Without a foundation of trust in “The Town,” as Hollywood is colloquially known, Chapek faced criticism from agents, producers, and showrunners.

He was blamed for Disney’s public clash with A-list star Scarlett Johansson during a Covid pandemic-related contract dispute and for mishandling the company’s response to the “Don’t Say Gay” controversy, as reported by CNBC in 2023.

Walden’s background positions her as the antithesis of Chapek: a Disney outsider with unparalleled connections in Hollywood. In the final months of Chapek’s tenure as CEO, as CNBC reported, Disney’s head of communications, Kristina Schake, arranged meetings for Chapek with key figures in Hollywood — many of which took place at Walden’s residence.

A potential transition from Iger to Walden would starkly contrast the Iger-Chapek handover, predicted Jay Sures, Vice Chairman of United Talent Agency and a close associate of Walden.

Sources familiar with the matter suggest that Chapek perceived Iger as a threat to his authority. Conversely, Walden would seek to maintain a close relationship with Iger for as long as possible, according to Sures.

“When Bob Chapek assumed the role, he couldn’t wait for Bob Iger to depart. However, if Dana were to take on the role, she would dread the day Iger steps down,” Sures remarked. “She recognizes the value of his expertise and leadership. She understands a good thing when she sees it.”

The final decision regarding Disney’s next CEO ultimately rests with the Disney board, but Iger’s influence is expected to be significant due to his longstanding tenure with the company, his stature among board members, and his deep understanding of the role.

“The importance of the succession process cannot be overstated, and as the Board continues to evaluate a highly qualified slate of internal and external candidates, I remain intensely focused on a successful transition,” stated Iger in a 2023 statement when he extended his contract as CEO until the end of 2026.

Even if Iger acknowledges some of the criticisms leveled against Walden regarding her suitability for the top job at Disney, his journey to becoming CEO in 2005 may influence his decision-making process.

“Look back at the articles written about Bob Iger,” remarked Sures. “I was friends with Bob then. There was skepticism — descriptions of him as an ’empty suit,’ a good-looking, tall guy with no experience in the movie business or mergers and acquisitions.

Yet, nineteen years later, he’s regarded as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, CEOs the entertainment industry has ever seen.”

“The same things are being said about Dana now,” Sures remarked.

Ultimately, Iger and the board’s choice for a successor may hinge on their vision for the future of Disney.

D’Amaro could emerge as the preferred candidate if the parks are deemed paramount to the company’s future. Pitaro might be the logical choice if ESPN and its impending digital transformation are viewed as vital components of Disney’s future direction.

Walden or Bergman could be favored if creative acumen and relationships hold greater significance, although recent challenges within Disney’s film division may cast a shadow over Bergman’s candidacy.

However, Chernin cautioned against oversimplifying Disney’s dynamics. He emphasized that the magic of the company lies in the synergy among its various divisions, rather than promoting one unit above the others.

“The business status is evolving rapidly. Disney is poised for significant transformation,” Chernin stated.

“Someone must envision what the media company of the future looks like. Bob [Iger] is currently grappling with that challenge, dedicating each day to crafting this vision. The cornerstone of the company’s success lies in cultivating enduring relationships with its customers.”

Sajda Parveen
Sajda Parveen
Sajda Praveen is a market expert. She has over 6 years of experience in the field and she shares her expertise with readers. You can reach out to her at [email protected]
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