The Walt Disney Company has abruptly fired Peter Rice, its most senior television content executive, citing an ill fit with Disney’s corporate culture, according to three people briefed on the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential information.
Mr. Rice, chairman of Disney General Entertainment Content, a division of the company that makes more than 300 shows annually for platforms like ABC, the Disney Channel, Disney+, Hulu and FX, was ousted by Bob Chapek, Disney’s chief executive, in a brief meeting on Wednesday, these people said. Mr. Rice, who has also overseen ABC News, most recently renewed his contract at Disney in August. It ran until the end of 2024. Disney will pay him out, the people said.
Mr. Rice declined to comment.
The ouster of Mr. Rice went off like a sonic boom in Hollywood, where he is widely admired. Many people in the entertainment business (outside Disney, at least) have even seen Mr. Rice as a possible candidate to succeed Mr. Chapek as Disney’s chief executive. Mr. Chapek’s decision is sure to generate questions about whether that chatter got a little too loud; Mr. Chapek has had a difficult few months, with Disney becoming a political punching bag, particularly for Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, and Disney’s stock price falling sharply amid industrywide concerns about the profitability of streaming services.
In April, Mr. Chapek fired the company’s most senior communications and government relations executive; the executive, Geoff Morrell, had joined Disney in January under a multiyear contract. Disney also paid him out. On Thursday, Disney shares closed at just above $103, a drop of almost 4 percent, which was more than the broader market’s decline of about 2 percent.
Susan E. Arnold, chairwoman of Disney’s board, said in an emailed statement that Mr. Chapek had the board’s backing — a rare public comment that indicates that, despite upheaval, Mr. Chapek is headed toward a contract renewal. His current contract expires in February.
“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,” Ms. Arnold said. “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.”
Another Disney board member, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss company matters, said the board had never considered Mr. Rice a candidate for chief executive.
Disney confirmed that Mr. Rice would immediately leave the company, but declined to comment as to why. After news of his ouster broke, Disney announced that Dana Walden, who has been chairwoman for entertainment for Walt Disney Television, would succeed him. Ms. Walden, working in tandem with Mr. Rice, has recently delivered hits like “Abbott Elementary,” an ABC comedy, and “Only Murders in the Building,” a comedic crime drama on Hulu.
“Dana is a dynamic, collaborative leader and cultural force who in just three years has transformed our television business into a content powerhouse,” Mr. Chapek said in a statement. “She and Peter have worked closely together for years to create the best programming in the industry.”
Mr. Chapek offered nothing more about Mr. Rice, eschewing the glowing platitudes that Hollywood usually turns to in these moments. Nor did Disney give Mr. Rice a parachute in the form of a production deal. (“I know all of us wish Peter the best,” Mr. Chapek said in an internal email that announced Ms. Walden’s ascent.)
Ms. Walden said in a statement that it was “an incredible honor” to be promoted and praised the team assembled by Mr. Rice as “truly the absolute best in every respect.” The group includes Kimberly Godwin at ABC News and Ayo Davis at Disney Branded Television.
Mr. Rice’s sudden departure ruptures a powerful trio that Disney inherited from 21st Century Fox, which it agreed to buy from Rupert Murdoch in 2017. Mr. Rice, Ms. Walden and the FX Networks chairman John Landgraf worked closely together at Fox for decades.
Mr. Rice, affable yet often inscrutable to those who worked with him, started his entertainment career in 1987, when he was a summer intern at Mr. Murdoch’s movie studio. Over the next three decades, he would become close to Mr. Murdoch, rising to become president of 21st Century Fox. Along the way, Mr. Rice turned Fox Searchlight into an Oscar and box-office superpower, delivering idiosyncratic hits like “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Sideways” and “Slumdog Millionaire.”
Filmmakers and television creators came out of the woodwork on Thursday to praise Mr. Rice. “Peter’s the best executive I’ve ever worked with, and I know many other artists would agree,” said Danny Boyle, who directed “Slumdog Millionaire.” He added that Disney would be “weaker” and “more corporate without him.”
The Disney shake-up was a shock to both Mr. Rice and Ms. Walden, the people briefed on the matter said. As recently as three weeks ago, Disney dispatched Mr. Rice to its upfront stage, the company’s annual showcase for the advertising industry. A prominent upfront appearance generally indicates that an executive’s standing at a company is strong.
Mr. Rice, who was introduced onstage by Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez, the stars of “Only Murders in the Building,” talked up Disney’s strong market position, pointing out that it was the “only company that hasn’t been bought or sold over the last 100 years.”
The Disney TV division has been having a good run. In addition to “Only Murders in the Building,” Hulu recently aired “The Dropout,” a critically beloved limited series about the Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes. The top shows for ABC News, “Good Morning America” and “World News Tonight,” remain the most-watched morning and evening newscasts.
Ms. Walden’s relationships in Hollywood, like Mr. Rice’s, run deep. Jay Sures, a co-president at the United Talent Agency, called her “arguably the best creative executive in the TV business,” adding that “she is beloved by talent.”