In a surprising move, Peter Rice has been ousted as head of TV content for Disney and will be replaced by his deputy, Chairman of Walt Disney Television Dana Walden.
Rice and Walden originally came to the Disney through the 21st Century Fox acquisition completed in 2019. His departure is an unexpected shakeup to the Disney hierarchy that comes directly from Disney CEO Bob Chapek; according to The New York Times, his exit is not due to any behavioral issues.
In a statement that pointedly does not acknowledge Rice’s years of service, Disney announced that Walden will become chairman of Disney General Entertainment Content, effective immediately. She now oversees the development and production of more than 300 shows per year across Disney’s various small-screen platforms, which include Disney+, Hulu, FX, ABC and Disney Channel — as well as ABC News.
Rice’s contract, which was renewed last August, ran until the end of 2024 and the company is expected to pay it out, according to an individual with knowledge of the situation. The payout is expected to be significant, according to one agent. Rice was viewed by many as a potential successor to Chapek if the Disney board wanted to make a change. The CEO’s contract is up in February of next year and Chapek may have viewed the outgoing Rice as a threat, according to an individual familiar with the situation.
Rice did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Rice, a Brit who earned a reputation for nurturing Hollywood talent, began his career in the marketing department of Twentieth Century Fox in 1989 and quickly rose through the ranks. He served as president of the art-house division Fox Searchlight, where he nurtured indie hits like “Juno,” “Napoleon Dynamite” and “Little Miss Sunshine” while cultivating relationships with filmmakers like Baz Luhrmann, Danny Boyle, Bryan Singer and the Hughes Brothers.
He later segued into TV, becoming chairman and CEO of Fox Networks Group in 2012, where he pushed Fox to become the No. 1 broadcast network for three seasons; five years later, he added the title of president of 21st Century Fox. Following Disney’s $71.3 billion acquisition of Fox’s film assets in three years ago, Rice succeeded Ben Sherwood as head of Walt Disney’s television division.
Rice’s ouster is the latest executive shakeup as Chapek continues to put his stamp on the entertainment giant after the exit of his longtime predecessor, Bob Iger. In April, senior communications and government relations executive Geoff Morrell was fired after joining Disney just three months prior. Sources say Rice’s firing caught many within the company off-guard.
The Walt Disney Company has seen its share price drop nearly 33% this year alone despite continued growth from Disney+, an increasingly healthy theatrical box office, and high demand across its theme parks and hotels. Chapek has generated turmoil from inside Disney’s ranks as well as elicited harsh comments from Florida Governor Ron DeSantis for his handling of the state’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
Chapek’s moves won a quick endorsement from company board chair Susan Arnold, who issued a statement on Thursday: “The strength of The Walt Disney Company’s businesses coming out of the pandemic is a testament to Bob’s leadership and vision for the company’s future. In this important time of business growth and transformation, we are committed to keeping Disney on the successful path it is on today, and Bob and his leadership team have the support and confidence of the Board.”
Chapek credited Walden’s performance for her promotion. “Dana is a dynamic, collaborative leader and cultural force who in just three years has transformed our television business into a content powerhouse that consistently delivers the entertainment audiences crave,” he said in a statement. “Her well-earned reputation for championing creative talent and developing programming that truly captures the cultural zeitgeist has resulted in hit after hit, from ABC’s ‘Abbott Elementary’ and Onyx Collective’s Academy Award-winning ‘Summer of Soul,’ to Hulu Originals like ‘Only Murders in the Building,’ ‘Dopesick,’ ‘The Dropout’ and ‘The Kardashians.’ She and Peter have worked closely together for years to create the best programming in the industry, and I can think of no one better than Dana to lead Disney General Entertainment to even greater heights.”
Walden added, “It is an incredible honor to be asked to lead this amazingly talented team—they are truly the absolute best in every respect—and I am grateful to Bob for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Walden spent 25 years at 21st Century Fox. During her tenure, she helped usher hit broadcast series such as “This Is Us,” “Empire,” “Modern Family” and “Glee” to the screen. Other popular series overseen by Walden include “24,” “How I Met Your Mother,” “New Girl,” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” At Disney Television Studios, she has overseen the production of hits such as “Grey’s Anatomy,” “The Simpsons,” “Family Guy,” “Bob’s Burgers” and “9-1-1.”