U.S. Media Executive

Michael 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.

Eisner 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.

When 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.)

The 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.

From 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.

But 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.

Eisner 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 households).

Eisner 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.

With 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.

By 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.


Michael Eisner
Photo courtesy of Broadcasting and Cable

And 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 months.

For 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.

- Douglas Gomery

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.


Auletta, Ken. "The Human Factor." The New Yorker (New York), 26 September 1994.

___________. "Awesome: Michael Eisner's Comback ...." The New Yorker (New York), 14 August 1995.

Boroughs, Don L. "Disney's All Smiles...." U.S. News and World Report (Washington, D.C.), 14 August 1995.

Flower, Joe. Prince of the Magic Kingdom: Michael Eisner and the Re-Making of Disney. New York: John Wiley, 1991.

Grover, Ron. The Disney Touch: How a Daring Management Team Revived an Entertainment Empire. Homewood, Illinois: Business One Irwin, 1991.

Huey, John. "Eisner Explains Everything." Fortune (Chicago, Illinois), 17 April 1995.

Jacobs, Rita D. "Modern Medici: Michael Eisner" (interview). Graphis (Zurich, Switzerland), September-October 1992.

"Meet the Boss" (exerpts from Charles Gibson's Television interview with Michael Eisner and Thomas Murphy). Harper's Magazine (New York), October 1995.

Schatz, Thomas. "Boss Men." Film Comment (New York), January-February 1990.


See also American Broadcasting Company; Walt Disney Programs