Eisner joined the Disney Company in 1984 and helped re-craft the
it throughout the 1980s and 1990s. In the process he helped to make
Disney into a television powerhouse, climaxing those efforts with
a takeover of Capital Cities-ABC on the last day of July 1995. Through
the final sixth of the twentieth century the Disney company, with
its ever increasing profits, was held up as a quintessential American
business success story. It produced popular culture fare embraced
around the world--and did not sell out to the Japanese. Yet when
Michael Eisner assumed leadership of the company, Disney was in
trouble. It was Eisner and his staff who turned the ailing theme
park company into a media powerhouse.
brought a rich base of executive experience to Disney. He had begun
his career at the ABC television network and then moved to Paramount
under former ABC boss, Barry Diller. The two men made Paramount
the top Hollywood studio during the late 1970s and early 1980s.
By 1978, just two years after Diller and Eisner arrived, Paramount
had moved to the head of the major studio race. Led by Grease,
Saturday Night Fever, and Heaven Can Wait, Paramount
took in one-quarter of the Hollywood box office in that year.
Eisner moved to Disney he moved immediately to revitalize the company.
He hired Hollywood's new "Irving Thalberg," Jeffrey Katzenberg,
then barely thirty, to make movies under two new two "brand names":
Touchstone Pictures and Hollywood Pictures. (Eisner and Katzenberg
worked well together until 1994 when Katzenberg moved to Dream Works,
Inc., with new partners Steven Spielberg and David Geffen.)
new Disney turned out hit feature films including Down and Out
in Beverly Hills, and Ruthless People. In 1987 when Three
Men and a Baby pushed beyond $100 million in box-office take,
it became the first Disney film ever to pass that vaunted mark.
Three Men and a Baby represented a quintessential example of the
new Disney, drawing its stars, Ted Danson and Tom Selleck, from
the world of television.
the base of solid theatrical film profits, Eisner then began to
re-make Disney into a TV power. The studio quickly placed hits such
as Golden Girls on primetime schedules. By the early 1990s
Disney's Home Improvement and Ellen consistently ranked
in TV's primetime top-ten. Disney also expanded into the TV syndication
business. The company created a very successful syndicated program
by hiring "film critics" Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert to "review"
movies, including those produced by Disney.
not all Disney moves into television prospered. Eisner revived Disney's
family Sunday night TV show, with himself as host. But Eisner proved
no "Uncle Walt" and he was forced to quietly cancel himself despite
airing in a prized 7:00 P.M. Sunday time slot on ABC. Like many
before and after him, Eisner could not compete successfully with
CBS's 60 Minutes.
Nor did Disney's TV syndication efforts always mint gold. Today's
Business, an early morning show which, although it aired initially
in half the television markets in the United States, lasted but
a few painful months in 1985. The Walt Disney Company pulled out,
eating a $5 million loss.
had more success with cable TV as he expanded efforts to make the
Disney Channel a pay cable TV power. Using a seemingly infinite
set of cross promotional exploitation opportunities, the Disney
Channel began to make money by 1990. By that year the channel could
claim five million subscribers (of some sixty million possible cable
may have had the most early success in home video. He accomplished
this in spades by packaging and proffering the "classics" of Disney
animation in the expanding home video market. These video revenues
provided an immediate boost to the corporate bottom line. In 1986
alone, home video revenues added more than $100 million of pure
profit. In October, 1987 when Lady and the Tramp was released
on video, the Disney company had more than two million orders in
hand before it ever shipped a copy. By the late 1980s Bambi and
Cinderella were added to the list of the all time best sellers
on video. Eisner placed Bambi and even Fantasia into "video sell
through" so every family could buy and own a copy. Aladdin
and The Lion King created even more profit and made the Disney
operation Hollywood's leader in home video sales.
all this Eisner made the Disney balance sheets glow. From mid-1985
through late 1990 the company broke profit records for more than
twenty straight quarters. Based on the good times of the 1980s operating
margins and cash flow tripled. It was no wonder that in order to
underscore their thriving new corporate colossus Eisner and company
president Frank Wells changed the company name from Walt Disney
Productions to The Walt Disney Company.
1991 the Walt Disney Company had become a true corporate power.
Specifically, as 1991 began, it ranked in the top two hundred of
all U.S. corporations in terms of sales and assets, an outstanding
43rd in terms of profits. In terms of its stock value Disney had
grown into a $16 billion company, with mind boggling sales of $6
billion per annum, and profits approaching $1 billion per year.
This was a media corporate giant, of a rank with Time Warner or
Paramount, no marginal enterprise anymore.
Photo courtesy of Broadcasting and Cable
so it came as no surprise in July 1995 that Disney announced its
most important move in television, the takeover of a broadcast television
network. What was surprising, however, is that the network chosen
by Disney was ABC, then the leading network, and its parent company
Capital Cities. Additional surprise came from the quiet, unsuspected
nature of the deal-making. As the story is reported Eisner and Cap
Cities President Thomas Murphy began their negotiations only days
before the final deal was struck--and managed to keep it from reporters.
For an announced $19 billion Disney had suddenly become one of the
world's major media conglomerates. A few weeks later the surprise
continued when Michael Ovitz, head of the Creative Artists Agency
and often referred to as the most powerful man in Hollywood, became
president of the new company, a position he held for less than eighteen
all his successes Michael Eisner was well rewarded. In 1990 surveys
of the best paid corporate executives in the United States, Michael
Eisner ranked in the top ten. From 1986 to 1990 he had been paid
nearly $100 million for his efforts. The Disney Company hit a publicity
apex in May of 1989 when it was revealed that Michael Eisner was
the highest paid executive in the United States for 1988--at more
than $40 million. Michael Eisner must be credited with creating
in the Disney Company one of the true media powerhouses of the end
of the twentieth century.
MICHAEL EISNER. Born in Mt. Kisco, New York, U.S.A., 7 March
1942. Educated at Denison University, Granville, Ohio, B.A. 1964.
Married Jane Breckenridge; three sons. Began career in programming
department of CBS; assistant to national programming director at
ABC, 1966-68, manager specials and talent, director of program development,
east coast, 1968-71, vice president daytime programming, 1971-75,
vice president program planning and development, 1975-76, senior
vice president, prime time production and development, 1976; president
and chief operating officer, Paramount Pictures Corp., 1976-84;
chairman and chief executive oficer, Walt Disney Company, since
1984. Founding member of board, Points of Light Foundation, inspired
by then President George Bush; past member of the board of trustees
of Georgetown University. Board of trustees: Denison University
and California Institute of the Arts; board member, American Hospital
of Paris Foundation and Conservation International, and the University
of California Los Angeles Executive Board for Medical Sciences.
Address: Walt Disney Company, 500 South Buena Vista Street, Burbank,
California 91521, U.S.
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(Zurich, Switzerland), September-October 1992.
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with Michael Eisner and Thomas Murphy). Harper's Magazine (New
York), October 1995.
Thomas. "Boss Men." Film Comment (New York), January-February
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