WALT DISNEY PROGRAMS (VARIOUS TITLES)

U.S. Cartoons/Films/Children's Programming

Walt Disney was not only one of the most important producers in motion picture history, but one of the most important producers in American television history as well. He pioneered a relationship between the motion picture industry and the fledgling television industry, helped ensure the success of a third television network, promoted the transition from live broadcasts to film, and championed the conversion to color television in the mid-1960s.

Although Disney was quoted in the 1930s as having no interest in television, that opinion had changed drastically by the early 1950s, when television burst onto the American social scene. On Christmas Day in 1950 for NBC and again in 1951 for CBS, Disney produced hour-long specials that employed a number of clips from various Disney films and short subjects. Both specials achieved excellent ratings, and soon all three networks were wooing Disney to create an entire series for them.

Disney's interest in television was stimulated by his attempts to construct the Disneyland theme park in Anaheim, California. Encountering difficulty in financing the project, Walt offered network executives a television series in return for a substantial investment in the park. ABC, trailing substantially behind NBC and CBS, had just merged with United Paramount Theatres in 1953, and used this new influx of cash to fulfill Disney's request. The resultant anthology series, appropriately named Disneyland, premiered in late 1954, quickly becoming the first ABC program to crack the Nielsen Top 20.

Disney's relationship with ABC contradicted the strategy espoused by the rest of the film industry. During this period Hollywood studios viewed television as a competitor to motion pictures, and attempted to crush the medium. Walt, on the other hand, quickly saw TV's potential as a promotional tool. The first two specials combined old footage with promotions for upcoming theatrical releases such as Alice in Wonderland (1951). Disney's first Emmy would be awarded for an hour-long Disneyland episode about the filming of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) titled "Operation Undersea," but humorously known within the industry as "The Long, Long Trailer." The series also worked to advertise the park, with individual episodes devoted specifically to its construction.

Soon, other studios were attempting to duplicate Disney's success. Series such as The MGM Parade and Warner Brothers Presents quickly appeared promoting their latest releases. They disappeared almost as quickly, mainly because Disney and his studio had constructed a unique image for themselves as producers of family entertainment. With a backlog of animated features and shorts, Disney came to television already known for entertaining children around the world (knowing the value of this backlog, Disney held onto the television rights to all of his films, at a time when all of the other studios were raising revenue by selling off the permanent television rights to their entire pre-1948 film catalog). From years of marketing towards children, Disney understood how children could influence their parents to buy products. After Disneyland's "Davy Crockett" episodes created a merchandising phenomenon, The Mickey Mouse Club, a daily afternoon series, was introduced. One of the first attempts by television programming to target children, advertisers now conceived of children as a marketable group and initiated a tradition of weekday afternoon programming oriented toward younger audiences.

The studio's background in film production led to the decision to film the episodes, allowing for higher production values, rather than performing them live. The high-quality look of the series (and the subsequent involvement of other film studios in television production) helped shift television programming from live broadcasts to filmed entertainment. Long before color television technology became regulated and promoted, Disneyland episodes were filmed in color. Disney would promote the conversion to color when the anthology series, renamed Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color, moved in 1961 to NBC, which was beginning color broadcasts.

Disney's importance to television as a producer of programming is incalculable. His success had an enormous effect on decisions by motion picture studios to enter into television production, thus guaranteeing programming for the fledgling medium. Yet, Disney is also important as a television icon as well. Working as host for the anthology series until the end of his life in 1966, Walt Disney quickly became identified by most children as "Uncle Walt." With an easy-going manner and a warm smile, Walt spoke to viewers in a Midwestern twang, enthusiastically demonstrating how certain special effects were created for his films, explaining the latest advances in space technology, or narrating a beloved fairy tale accompanied by scenes from his animated features. Usually filmed in a set that looked like his studio office, Walt gave the impression that he would drop all business to spend some time with his audience or engage in banter with cartoon characters Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck (who "magically" interacted with Walt as if they actually existed in the same space with him). More than in any other way, Walt's presence and persona helped represent his company as promoters of American family values, and television itself as a "family medium." Even after his death, the company's television productions and subsequent cable channel reinforce that image of wholesome family entertainment.

-Sean Griffin

 

EXECUTIVE PRODUCER/HOST

Walt Disney (1954-1966)
Michael Eisner (1986-1990)

PROGRAMMING HISTORY

ABC
October 1954-September 1958       Wednesday 7:30-8:30
September 1958-September 1959           Friday 8:00-9:00
September 1959-September 1960           Friday 7:30-8:30
September 196O-September 1961         Sunday 6:30-7:30

NBC
September 1961-August 1975               Sunday 7:30-8:30
September 1975-September 1981         Sunday 7:00-8:00

CBS
September 1981-January 1983            Saturday 8:00-9:00
January 1983-February 1983                Tuesday 8:00-9:00
July 1983-September 1983                 Saturday 8:00-9:00

ABC
February 1986-September 1987            Sunday 7:00-9:00
September 1987-September 1988         Sunday 7:00-8:00

NBC
October 1988-July 1989                        Sunday 7:00-8:00
July 1989                                            Sunday 8:00-9:00
August 1989-May 1990                        Sunday 7:00-8:00
May 1990-July 1990                             Sunday 7:00-9:00
July 1990-August 1990                         Sunday 8:00-9:00
August 1990-September 1990               Sunday 7:00-8:00

FURTHER READING

Anderson, Christopher. Hollywood/TV. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1994.

Flower, Joe. Prince Of The Magic Kingdom: Michael Eisner And The Re-Making Of Disney. New York: Wiley, 1991.

Greene, Katherine, and Richard Greene. The Man Behind the Magic: The Story of Walt Disney. New York: Viking, 1991.

Holliss, Richard, and Brian Sibley. The Disney Studio Story. New York: Crown, 1988.

Schickel, Richard. The Disney Version. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968.

Smoodin, Eric, editor. Disney Discourse: Producing The Magic Kingdom. New York: Routledge, 1994.

 

See also Cartoons; Disney, Walt; Eisner, Michael