Walt Disney Co. Chairman George Mitchell said Tuesday that the company was on track to hire a new chief executive to replace Michael Eisner when he steps down at the end of his contract in September 2006.


The search for a new chief executive was the biggest topic of discussion at Disney's shareholder meeting in Orlando, Fla., the day after Disney reported its first-quarter earnings.


The Disney board, which has taken steps over the last year to polish its corporate governance image including splitting the chairman and chief executive titles has hired executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles to look for an outside replacement for Eisner.


Thanks to a ratings turnaround at ABC Television Network, Disney on Monday reported a 5 percent profit increase for the October-December period. The improved results could help make Disney President Robert Iger a more attractive candidate to replace Eisner. Iger is Disney's only internal candidate and is supported by Eisner.


Mitchell would not say if there were any outside candidates.


"The very first thing the search firm told us is that if you want this process to work, it must be private," Mitchell said. "A description of the process is public; the details of it must remain private for it to be effective."

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