Editorial: Selling McDisney to the very young

Mar 4, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Parents of small children got some bad news last month when the Disney Channel announced it has begun selling advertising time. The cable channel had been free of ads since its inception 19 years ago.
The channel’s new sponsorship deal with McDonald’s is now bringing 15-second messages to children during the Playhouse Disney programming block, aimed at kids ages 2 to 5. The initial program-the advertisers’ foot in the door, if you will-involves relatively benign promotional plugs rather than blatant burger ads. Nonetheless, the deal eliminates one of television’s last commercial-free havens for parents who are concerned about their kids being “branded” at an early age and bombarded with powerful commercial messages in a media world that almost everyone agrees is already far too cluttered with advertising.
In a free market, Disney clearly has a right to try to maximize the return from its channels. And especially in a tough advertising environment, the move hardly comes as a surprise. But that doesn’t mean it’s in the best interest of viewers. And in the long run, viewer interest should prove to be more important than whatever short-term financial gain comes from Disney’s decision.
The Disney move is particularly troubling in light of industrywide concessions to commercialization, including the recent introduction of an “intermission” during movies on American Movie Classics and the gradual acceptance during the past few years of 30-second spots on PBS. These individual business decisions add up to an alarming trend. It’s a trend that is further alienating a viewing public already fed up with the ad clutter and lowest-common-denominator programming that define television in the era of the media megacorporation.
In the Disney case, it’s troubling to see a network turn its back on families-families with whom the network’s 19-year commercial-free relationship created what amounts to a pact, an implicit promise that Disney would continue to provide children’s entertainment free of outside advertising in exchange for parents’ willingness to let Disney use the channel to promote its own movies, TV programming and other Disney products.
Disney and the other corporations making the decisions that will shape the future of television would do well to recognize this fact: If TV continues down the path it’s on, if it continues to shove aside the needs and desires of its viewers in favor of immediate commercial gratification, it runs the risk of creating a backlash that could destroy any good will television has left with its viewers and would permanently damage the medium’s viability and profitability.