The Deal That Made ABC: 50 Years of ‘The Wonderful World of Disney’

Oct 25, 2004  •  Post A Comment

OK, let’s get this out of the way first thing. If you are a baby boomer, I need you to sing the following. It doesn’t matter if you are at your office desk or at home or reading this on a train or a plane.

Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in belting out-yes, belting out-the first song I ever learned:

“Born on a mountain top in Tennessee, greenest state in the Land of the Free. Raised in the woods so’s he knew ev’ry tree, kilt him a b’ar when he was only 3. (Louder now) Davy, Davy Crockett, king of the wild frontier (repeat).”

Thank you. It was 50 years ago this week-on Oct. 27-when “Disneyland,” the show in which that song originated, first hit the airwaves, transforming the industry. And five decades later, the program, now called “The Wonderful World of Disney,” is still on the air, continuing to delight kids with Disney magic.

Back in October 1954 the debut of the show represented a landmark moment in TV history.

When TV really started becoming popular, in the early 1950s, the movie studios saw the new medium as Public Enemy No. 1. The problem, as they saw it, was that TV was competing with motion pictures, keeping people at home and away from theaters. So the last thing the studios intended was to cooperate with the small-screen upstart.

Walt Disney had previously dabbled in TV with two one-hour Christmas Day specials that were primarily promotional vehicles for upcoming films. Those shows were well received, but Mr. Disney wasn’t about to jump whole hog into the new medium.

That is, until he decided to build a theme park like no other that was to be called Disneyland. Mr. Disney thought he would need about $5 million to build the park. To get the financing, he approached the TV networks with the idea that his studio would do TV shows that, among other things, would promote the park.

At the time, there were two major TV networks, CBS and NBC, and both turned Mr. Disney down. And there were two very decidedly minor networks, Dumont and ABC.

A year earlier, in 1953, ABC had been sold to a company called United Paramount Theaters, which owned a large chain of movie theaters. UPT, unlike the studios, understood the power of TV and decided it was a good complement to the theatrical exhibition business. When the deal closed, CBS had 74 affiliates and NBC had 71. ABC, by contrast, had only 14 affiliates in addition to its five owned-and-operated stations.

While ABC was a laggard in the number of stations it was affiliated with, it was blessed with the most savvy of leaders, Leonard Goldenson, and with solid financials once it was owned by a strong movie theater chain. Toward the end of 1953, the late Mr. Goldenson related in his 1991 memoir “Beating the Odds,” he got a call that Mr. Disney wanted to see him.

When Mr. Disney said he needed about $5 million to build his theme park, Mr. Goldenson countered it would take closer to $10 million or $15 million to build and run it the first year. “I offered to take Disney to see our board,” Mr. Goldenson wrote. “But as a condition I said, `I want a one-hour program, every week.’ And of course I wanted access to their 600-animated-feature library. In exchange I offered one minute, each week, free, to promote Disney’s latest film. With hundreds of UPT theaters to show these movies, that wasn’t a bad deal for us.”

Mr. Goldenson said he talked to some banks and was eventually able to arrange for Mr. Disney to get $10 million to $15 million in financing by having ABC give the Disney studio $500,000 and guarantee the loans. In exchange, ABC received a 35 percent interest in Disneyland and-Goldenson thinking like the smart theater owner he was-all profits from the park’s concession stands for 10 years.

As for the programming part of the pact, “We agreed to a seven-year deal, with an option for an eighth, at $5 million a year,” Mr. Goldenson wrote. “At $40 million it was then the biggest programming package in history.”

(Years later, the ABC/Disney relationship turned acrimonious, and in 1961, Mr. Disney took his show to NBC, where it was retitled “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color” and became the reason many of us convinced our parents to buy color TV sets. To end ABC’s deal with the Disney studio, Mr. Goldenson wrote, “We made a $17 million deal to sell back our share of Disneyland. … [We] took $7.5 million in cash and Disneyland’s concession profits for five more years. I felt they would bring in about $2.5 million a year, and I wasn’t far wrong.”)

“Disneyland” debuted on ABC with an episode about the theme park that was under construction and a preview of the studio’s upcoming movie “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” The “Disneyland” TV show was an anthology series, and the idea was to present original programming whose subject matter was somehow related to the various theme areas of the upcoming Disneyland park. Those areas were Tomorrowland, Fantasyland, Adventureland and Frontierland.

Less than two months later, on Dec. 15, the show became a true cultural phenomenon with the introduction of a miniseries (TV’s first?) tied to the theme of Frontierland. “Reading from `Davy Crockett’s Journal,’ Walt introduces the story of the American folk hero and unknowingly starts a national craze,” is the way Bill Cotter described it in his book “The Wonderful World of Disney Television.”

Think how hot “The Apprentice” was last season and multiply that by 10, and you’ll get some idea of the show’s popularity. Or better yet, think about Barney when he first appeared, and how kids reacted to that, and multiply that by 10. If you don’t believe me, ask any male baby boomer in his early 50s to early 60s. More than just becoming a popular show, it made us want to be Davy Crockett. To look like him and act like him (at least as portrayed by actor Fess Parker). Coonskin caps became the rage, as did the “Ballad of Davy Crockett” song. After this miniseries, few doubted the powerful effect of television on popular culture.

No one was more surprised by the success of Davy Crockett than Mr. Disney. “We had no idea what was going to happen on `Crockett,”‘ Mr. Cotter quoted Mr. Disney as saying. “Why, by the time the first show finally got on the air, we were already shooting the third one and calmly killing Davy off at the Alamo. It became one of the biggest overnight hits in TV history, and there we were with just three [episodes] and a dead hero!”

The Disney studio scored another first when it combined the three episodes into a single story and released it as a movie in theaters. One theater chain operator said at the time, according to Mr. Cotter, “Frankly, if I had a theater and Mr. Disney asked me to play a picture which had been assembled from films shown on TV, I’d ask him how much he was going to pay me.” The film turned out to be a big financial success.

Despite a huge disadvantage in the number of affiliates that aired it, “Disneyland” ended its first season as the sixth-highest-rated show on TV. It was the first time a show on ABC had even made it into the top 20 regularly scheduled series for the year.

Furthermore, based on the success the Disney studio had, ABC was able the next year to convince another major studio, Warner Bros., that it too could produce shows for TV profitably and not be scared of the new medium.

After having aired on NBC, the show later moved to CBS and then to The Disney Channel. And of course, with Disney purchasing ABC, the show eventually returned to its original home.

For 50 years “The Wonderful World of Disney” has delighted generations, and don’t be surprised if it works its magic for another 50 years.