Dana Walden could defy critics and make history

Dana Walden, co-chair of Disney Entertainment

Rich Polk | Getty Images

In 1994, a captain of the media and entertainment industry saw something in Dana Walden that made him think she was capable of a bigger role.

Thirty years later, that may happen again.

That first time, the executive was Peter Chernin, then president of 20th Century Fox Filmed Entertainment and later president and chief operating officer of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. Chernin plucked Walden from Fox’s corporate communications division and gave her a job in TV.

In 2024, the executive is Bob Iger, Disney’s CEO, and the position he’s considering Walden for is that of his successor, according to people familiar with the process. The appointment would make Walden the first female CEO of the Walt Disney Co. in its 100-year history.

Just a year into her early career at 20th Century Fox, working in publicity, Walden delivered a presentation at a company retreat in Santa Barbara, California. She was determined to leave a lasting impression on Chernin, now chairman and CEO of investment firm The Chernin Group, after several encounters in which he’d never remembered her.

To get his attention, Walden decided to be bold. She told Fox executives, including Chernin, that they weren’t being aggressive enough to secure top talent. Fox needed to take bigger swings to generate relationships and land shows that could make it to syndication, Walden argued. A spokesperson for Walden confirmed the details of the presentation.

When the retreat ended, Chernin called Peter Roth, then president of 20th Century Fox Television, who later ran Warner Bros.’ TV division.

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

That set Walden on a career course correction that’s led her to the doorstep of becoming Iger’s successor.

Peter Chernin

Getty Images for Malaria No More 2013

Walden, co-chair of Disney Entertainment, is competing internally with Disney Experiences Chairman Josh D’Amaro, ESPN Chairman Jimmy Pitaro, and Alan Bergman, who is Entertainment co-chair with Walden, to be named the next CEO of Disney, said the people familiar, who asked not to be named because the discussions are private.

Iger plans to name a successor and then stick around at Disney to teach that person the job before departing at the end of 2026, CNBC reported in September. He’s fighting to maintain control of Disney’s future against a threat from Trian Partners’ Nelson Peltz.

Peltz has argued he should help spearhead a successor search, considering Iger has pushed back his retirement five times and returned to the job after Bob Chapek, named CEO in 2020, was fired in 2022. Peltz has claimed the Disney board can’t be trusted to handle succession. Disney shareholders will vote on Peltz’s candidacy to the board at its annual meeting Wednesday.

Several executives at Disney privately told CNBC they believe Walden, 59, is the favorite to land the top job, though they have no inside knowledge of…

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