By John Joseph
Boldly stepping into an increasingly fractured entertainment environment – one in which movies are competing with television for viewers’ attention, and established studios are fighting with young upstarts to get a slice of an ever-shrinking dollar – Disney is about to take the wraps off one of its most intriguing moves yet.
Using its enormous library of films and TV shows, and promising massive spending on original programming, Disney is about to launch a service that utilizes technology that’s still fairly new, but has rapidly been adopted by more and more people.
Still, industry analysts wonder whether enough people will want to pay a monthly fee to watch a service that promises to make their favorite Disney content available anytime they want it.
And it’s not Disney+.
Rather, this was precisely the scenario in spring 1983 – more than 37 years ago and longer than many Disney fans have been alive. The programming service was a satellite-based cable offering called The Disney Channel, which for about $10 a month ($26 in today’s money) offered 16 hours a day of content. Programs ranged from classic Disney movies to brand-new, untested programs, including “Welcome to Pooh Corner” and “Epcot Magazine,” a daily (yes, daily) show produced at Disney’s newly opened Epcot Center, itself a massive gamble.
“The channel is regarded by many industry experts as the most promising program-service in cable television in recent years,” The New York Times wrote on April 12, 1983. “But the Disney Channel arrives at an unsettled time in cable programming. … While one-third of the channel will have recognizable Disney images, Disney executives are hoping that viewers get hooked on its 12 new series.”
Compare that with an article that appeared in The New York Times almost exactly 34 years later, on April 11, 2019, the day after Disney “offered long-awaited details about (its) counterattack on the tech giants that have moved into the entertainment business. … In its first year, Disney Plus will offer 10 original films and 25 original series, including three ‘Avengers’ spinoffs.”
In 1983, the company, then called Walt Disney Productions, was still less than two decades removed from the death of its founder. Playing it safe, the company had bet, and lost, on low-budget family films, then had doubled down on an expansion of its Florida property that had included opening Epcot Center at a staggering cost of $1 billion – which had left it nearly bankrupt, both financially and creatively.
Desperately in need of a turnaround, Disney had appointed Ron Miller as its CEO in 1978, and though he had big ideas, the execution of those ideas – “edgier” movies like “The Black Hole” and “Tron” – had been costly failures.
The Disney Channel was a huge gamble for such a desperate company. Times have changed. Disney is in precisely the opposite position it was in, financially at least, in 1983 – it’s the single biggest studio at the box office, and its acquisitions of Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm Ltd., and Fox have left it in control of the biggest and most successful library of films in Hollywood history.
Yet Disney+ is, in many ways, facing precisely the same challenges that The Disney Channel faced in April 1983. Competition is fierce – then, Disney was going up against the big three networks (it owns one of them now), and against the might of such established behemoths as HBO and Showtime. While its library of content is impressive, then and now, it’s also familiar to viewers and readily available elsewhere.
Then, Disney’s animated films – which it largely kept off of The Disney Channel – were maintained in the “vault” until they were re-released every seven years; videotape was still a novel format and had yet to achieve mass adoption, while the content itself was expensive; in the early 1980s, films on VHS were priced at levels to encourage purchase by video rental stores, not consumers.
Today, Disney’s films are available in multiple formats almost any time and anywhere – DVD versions of its films sold tens of millions of copies. Its movies have long been available on streaming services, so even while they’re “comfort viewing” for many fans, their omnipresence means that Disney will have to rely on original programming to court viewers.
That has been an expensive proposition for Disney+’s biggest competitor, Netflix, which according to Variety will spend $15 billion on new content in 2019 alone. Disney has said it will spend about $1 billion in original content in its first year.
That compares to about $100 million Disney spent on original content in 1983, a sum that may seem small by today’s standards, but at the time was a massive amount for a company that was already in financial distress.
Among the programs that debuted on The Disney Channel when it premiered were the previously mentioned “Epcot Magazine” along with “You and Me Kid” and the game show “Contraption” – none of which are exactly household names now, but all of which had at least some initial success. Even more were initially planned, but ultimately scrapped (including more Epcot-related series), and that original content along with the Disney brand name helped The Disney Channel do something few had envisioned in early 1983: achieve profitability within two years.
Despite its eventual success, Disney’s long-ago bet on The Disney Channel proved problematic: plagued with debt and creative inertia, within a year of the cable channel’s launch, Disney had become the target of corporate raiders, and eventually was saved by a wholesale change in management.
Today, Disney seems to be in a much different place – but, as website QZ.com points out, the gamble the notoriously risk-averse company is making on Disney+ is not insignificant: “Disney is betting its entire future on streaming.” Then again, despite all of Disney’s financial ups and downs, Disney’s cable channel is still going strong, nearly four decades later.