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Dana Walden Talks COVID-19 Protocols, Embracing Failure and Promoting Diversity During Harvard Fireside Chat

Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images
The high-ranking chairman received a lifetime achievement award at the tail end of a 45-minute Fireside Chat that featured a wide-ranging discussion and Walden's own daughter, Casey.
Dana Walden closed out Sunday morning with another award for her mantle.
The chairman of entertainment at Walt Disney Television was honored with a lifetime achievement trophy from Harvard Women in Business during the group's Intercollegiate Business Convention. The one-day event featured Walden in a Fireside Chat on the program alongside keynote speakers like Pfizer's Angela Hwang, Bank of America's Cathy Bessant, Microsoft's Amy Hood, and Pepsico's Paula Santilli.
Walden's showing was significant in that she was the first and only woman from Hollywood to be participating in the annual event. Moderated by Intercollegiate Business Convention chairs Jeanne Lauer and Lucy Lu (class of 2022), Walden’s conversation covered a lot of ground in 45 minutes including how Netflix disrupted the TV industry, managing production with COVID-19 protocols, the status of Disney’s diversity and inclusion efforts, the benefits of leaning into fear and what she would tell her younger self.
Lu noted the theme of the conference, "Be Heard, Be Heard," and asked Walden to recall a time during her career when she worked to make sure she was. Walden offered a story she previously told The Hollywood Reporter about how as a young publicity executive at Fox in the mid-1990s, she kept running into then-CEO Peter Chernin. Every time, he’d say, "Nice to meet you." After about the tenth time, she knew she wasn’t making the right impression so, during a company retreat, she decided to shoot a shot by offering something meaningful to get his attention in an honest and candid way.
During a presentation, she took the risky move of saying that Fox was, in her opinion, not making the right kinds of deals. "We weren’t in business with the right kinds of storytellers," she said, adding that the studio kept submitting "little offers" but as soon as agents would counter, Fox backed off, "and one of our competitors would get the deal." Walden laid out a strategy to turn that around and she wound up getting Chernin’s attention because later that night, she found herself seated next to him at dinner. Back at the office, Chernin then moved Walden out of publicity and effectively set her on path into the creative area where she’s gone on to become one of the highest-ranking content executives in the world.
Worth noting that Walden said her original pitch was done in a judicious manner that took into account what her colleagues had already presented. "One of the most important things that everyone in a meeting can do is listen to each other," she also said, noting how common it is for people to be stuck in their own heads while thinking of what they want to say that they aren’t staying present. "It’s critical to listen."
Speaking of, Walden was asked to identify elements that make for a successful show. She name-checked Buffy, The X-Files, The Simpsons and 24 for the reason that those series shared a common thread of inspiring a bit of fear. In today’s streaming world, Walden said the dialogue can often center on algorithms and data but nothing can replace a great executive’s gut instincts. "Over time, what I learned was when I feel that fear and [when] my heart does a second beat, I can feel it pumping out of my chest, lean into that," she said. "Lean into ideas that make you afraid."
Other times, it can be just the right elements. She said sitting in the room listening to Liz Meriwether pitch New Girl or Chris Lloyd and Steve Levitan pitch Modern Family, it was impossible to keep a straight face. "They were hilariously side-splittingly funny stories about their lives," she said. "If they can achieve what they are describing here those will be really funny shows and those are the situations that occurred."
Walden was then asked to offer her take on how subscription-based services — Netflix, Amazon, HBO Max, and her company’s Hulu and Disney+ and others — have changed the TV industry and content production. "Well, they've changed everything," she said simply before detailing how "formidable competitor" Netflix disrupted the TV game by allowing consumers to dictate how and when they would consume content. "It changed our industry forever, and I think it really has changed it for the better. It's given so many different creators the opportunity to tell their stories because there are so many more platforms now. When we talk a lot about diversity of content and creators and inclusion and making sure that so many different stories are being told, there's now the opportunity to have a platform for virtually any type of story."
Lu then asked Walden to open up on how COVID-19 has impacted the industry and, specifically, Walt Disney Television. "It's been an unthinkably difficult year," Walden explained, noting that across Walt Disney Television (now called Disney General Entertainment), 150 shows were shut down and in the division she oversees, that included 65.
"We then spent the next several months developing protocols and working together with the various guilds that protect the actors, the directors, the writers, the below the line crew members who we work with, we worked with various medical professionals, specialists, infectious disease specialists to create protocols that would enable us to put our shows back in production," she said, adding that they did so as a way to support the business but also the livelihoods of all those who work on the shows.
Walden then praised General Hospital and the Bachelor franchise for being "real trailblazers" in terms of navigating protocols and kick-starting production. "I'm deeply indebted to the team at General Hospital. They put their show back into production very early after the start of quarantine," she said. "We got to learn so much about what the best practices were, how many times a week we needed to test, how many people could be together in the same room as we were producing, what the distance that we had to keep people away from each other, again, to keep our teams and our employees safe. We learned so much."
The second show back into production was The Bachelorette and it was accomplished by taking over La Quinta Resort near Palm Springs which allowed for a bubble operation. "I'm very proud when I think about the transmission rate of the virus in somewhere like Los Angeles, where the numbers through the spike were hitting 7, 8, 9 percent transmission rate. On our shows, we've maintained less than 1 percent," she said. "The environments on our shows have become some of the safest places in this city and in the places where we're doing production, just because of a very motivated workforce. Everyone wants to be back at work. Everyone wants to be able to have their shows in production. No one wants to go too long without shows being available to our viewers."
The final question before the chat was opened up for an audience Q&A focused on diversity and inclusion. Walden was asked what Disney TV is doing to ensure representation of diverse perspectives both on-camera and off. She said she’s really proud to be a part of the Disney team.
"Over the past year, we have welcomed in amazing creative and business leaders who are executives of color, who are decision-makers at the highest level, because I really think that's where this all has to start if we want to see genuine, meaningful, sustained change, is that the people who are in positions like my own and the presidents of organizations are truly diverse," she said. "Our company is starting to shift and it's starting to become a place where, when leaders are people of color, they're magnets for the best executives and the best talent in the world who want to come and be with us. It starts with leadership and recruiting the most formidable executives of color, and then it goes directly to our talent."
One of the audience questions found Walden opening up on what advice she would give her younger self: "I would tell myself to relax. Everything is going to be fine. Throughout my career, I put a lot of pressure on myself, I would not say to be perfect, but to try to avoid failure. … I think successful leaders embrace discomfort because discomfort is necessary to change and to evolve and to lead and to make good decisions."
She was then asked to focus on a crystal ball and offer predictions on what the business will look like in 10 years. She said the current period of contraction — a period that has been punctuated by high-profile mergers and acquisitions and widespread layoffs — will pave the way for opportunities down the line. "I think once the contraction is at a certain point and particularly, I think when we're out of COVID, and a lot of opportunities open again, there will be greater opportunity for smaller production companies over time," she said. "Some artists will again want to be with a smaller company to curate their ideas and figure out exactly what's right. That will lead to all sorts of other opportunities."
She said while it’s impossible to truly know based on how much the ground has shifted already, but, "what I know for sure is, if you are a viewer of great content, you're going to be really happy because the next 10 years is going to bring significantly more artists, storytellers, and great consumer products to viewers."
What the audience got to see next was the close of the program with a sweet mother-daughter moment. Walden was presented with a lifetime achievement award from Harvard Women in Business and her daughter Casey entered the frame to hand her the trophy. Walden said Casey "is going to be a future woman in business for sure." She then thanked her hosts for the "incredible day" and the honor of sharing the program with all the women they chose to highlight. "Organizations like this are just critical. I wish there were more of them when I was growing up in the industry for women to support each other and to mentor each other. Ultimately, if I leave this industry and there is not a woman right behind me ready to take my job, I will not consider myself to have been successful, and organizations like you are going to ensure that that happens."
    "Ultimately, if I leave this industry and there is not a woman right behind me ready to take my job, I will not consider myself to have been successful," said Dana Walden (w/daughter Casey) this morning during Intercollegiate Business Conv. by Harvard Undergrad Women in Business.
 

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