Ben Sherwood: ‘An insider and outsider there, and that’s what ABC was looking for’

By Gail Shister Comment

While most industry types were surprised by yesterday’s announcement of Ben Sherwood as ABC News president, Jonathan Wald was not among them.

“Benjie is both an insider and outsider there, and that’s what ABC was looking for,” says Wald, Sherwood’s boss at ‘NBC Nightly News’ in the late ‘90s. “He understands the culture, but he’s breathing fresh air, too.”

A stealth candidate, Sherwood’s name had not surfaced anywhere as a replacement for 13-year president David Westin, scheduled to step down at the end of this month.

On paper, it’s an unusual hire, to say the least. Sherwood, 46, a best-selling writer and digital media entrepreneur, has been out of TV news since 2006.

After two years as exec producer of ABC’s ‘Good Morning America,’ he returned to California in ’06 to resume his writing career. His 2009 book, ‘The Survivors Club: The Secrets and Science that Could Save Your Life,’ was a best-seller.

Ironically, he had left NBC earlier for the same reason. His 2004 novel, ‘The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud,’ became a best seller. The same year, he came back to ABC for a second stint. “I discovered that I could leave the news business, but the news business didn’t leave me,” he said in a 2004 interview.

“Charlie St. Cloud” was adapted to a feature film last summer. Sherwood’s 2000 book, “The Man Who Ate the 747,” is also being developed as a movie and Broadway musical.

“As evidenced by his peripatetic career, Benjie’s open for anything,” says Wald, now e.p. of CNN’s Piers Morgan show, to debut next month. “As another child of television, I see in him a short attention span. He masks it very well.”

Media consultant Victor Neufeld, a 25-year ABC News veteran, acknowledges he was taken aback, at first, when he learned of Sherwood’s appointment.

“I thought they’d choose someone within the ranks, or someone within the highest levels of a network news division,” Neufeld says. Almost immediately, he says he saw it as a “brilliant” choice.

Sherwood “is a modern media man,” Neufeld says. “He has one foot in the present, one foot in the future. He’s not part of the broadcast journalism establishment of New York City. He’s a dynamic, creative thinker, and he’s a storyteller. He knows the power of a good story.”

Wald’s first impression of Sherwood when they met at NBC was that “he was a smart, creative guy.” His second impression: “He had a big forehead, very Conan-ish.”

Maybe it’s a Harvard thing. Sherwood and O’Brien, both Harvard grads, took a freshman seminar together.

Sherwood also worked at the Crimson under Jeff Zucker, recently booted as head of NBC Universal. The diminutive Zucker “was a god from the beginning,” he said in an ’04 interview. “I always looked up to him, but not technically.”

According to Wald, most people don’t realize Sherwood has a sharp sense of humor. “It gets lost in his ‘I’m a race car driver, novelist, network executive’ thing.’”

Don’t forget “the Rhodes Scholar thing.” Following in his sister Elizabeth’s footsteps, the Sherwoods became the first brother-sister tandem to win the prestigious scholarship.