He watched as his friend Jeff Zucker catapulted up the ranks of NBC -- then took the heat for NBC’s decline. Now Ben Sherwood has done the same, taking charge at Disney/ABC. Will his tenure be different?
FORTUNE — They worked together at the Harvard Crimson, then made their careers in the rough and tumble world of morning talk shows, followed by news. Now, like his friend and competitor Jeff Zucker did in the 2000s, Ben Sherwood has graduated to the big time. On March 24, he was introduced by Bob Iger as the surprise choice to head Disney Media Networks and the Disney/ABC Television group DIS , replacing Anne Sweeney, who announced she was stepping down to pursue a career as a television director.
Zucker’s tenure as the head of NBC didn’t go over so well. He was blamed for such programming hiccups as the Tonight Show debacle and NBC’s ratings slide, and left in 2010 — he now runs CNN, also owned by Fortune parent Time Warner TWX . Will Sherwood have the same problems adjusting?
Sherwood laughs off the comparison, saying that there are very important differences between the two, the most important of which being that he is “6’4″ and has 10% more hair than his friend “Jeffie.” (He says Zucker calls him “Benji.”) Whereas Zucker was criticized for never quite fitting into the fabric of the L.A. scene, Sherwood was born and raised there and is moving his family back to what he calls home. He does possess entertainment bona fides, having written three books that were optioned (one, The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud, was made into a movie in 2010), and being married to a woman with impeccable credentials in the space. (Karen Kehela Sherwood is the co-Chair at Imagine Films.)
But probably the most important difference of all lies in just how much the job of network head has changed. Picking pilots and writing notes is still important — and glamorous — but Sweeney’s job (now Sherwood’s) is a big executive role, one that increasingly is about leveraging technology and white-knuckle negotiations as much as it is about traditional ratings. “There’s this programming cost inflation that everyone has to face, and the method of getting paid is changing,” says Tony Wible, senior media and entertainment analyst at Janney Capital Markets. “Plus you have to contend with threats like Aereo.”
There’s a lot to learn, and Sherwood admits it. “It’s an enormous creative role and a huge business role,” he says. “Part of my job is to learn as much about the business as I can from Anne in the next few months.” (Sweeney will stay on until early 2015.) Sweeney was admired for her political skills inside a company that has a history of rough politics. Sherwood, whose last tenure at the company started only in 2010, doesn’t possess the same corporate longevity of either Zucker at NBC or Sweeney. That could be an advantage or a problem, depending on whom you ask.
Indeed, even as Sherwood dusts off his creative skills, it’s worth noting that Sweeney left because she is seeking more creativity in her new role. And Zucker, for his part, is back in the news business, where he has boosted CNN’s ratings of late. Sherwood could end up missing the creative. But his boss, Bob Iger, won’t be around for too much longer. If the C-suite ends up agreeing with him? Well, that would be quite the dramatic ending.