Disney's ABC deal is a grand bit of home improvement


If you want a good idea of what yesterday's $19 billion Disney acquisition of Capital Cities/ABC Inc. will mean for television viewers, tune in to WMAR (Channel 2) at 9 tonight for Tim Allen's "Home Improvement."

The series, TV's highest-rated sitcom, suggests both the synergy that makes this an obvious media marriage, as well as one of the main paths the Disney-owned ABC television network is expected to travel.

As ABC Entertainment president Ted Harbert puts it, "ABC's comedy shows, like 'Home Improvement,' are made for America's families."

Says Disney CEO Michael Eisner, "Disney has always been about family entertainment."

The key word is family. "Home Improvement" is a family sitcom -- with little or no subject matter that parents find objectionable for their children. It's the kind of fare that has become the brand identity for both the ABC television network, with franchises like its "ABC Family Movie," and Disney, in everything from theme parks to the Disney cable channel.

It's no coincidence that Disney's Burbank-based production company makes and owns "Home Improvement" and that ABC is the network that rents the rights from Disney to air the hit series.

For those rental rights, ABC pays Disney Productions more than $1 million per episode for each of 22 first-run episodes a year. Such multimillion-dollar arrangements made the two companies partners long before yesterday's mega-deal.

Now the $22 million will go from one pocket to the other, the result of Disney yesterday becoming a model of vertical integration -- the economist's way of saying a company has it all, from production to distribution to marketing.

Disney makes "Home Improvement" and ABC distributes it to an audience of 30 million viewers a week. After that, Disney can air reruns in syndication on the nine local television stations it acquired with Capital Cities/ABC Inc. (11 stations by the end of the year when the sale of two more are finalized). Then, Disney can air reruns on cable -- on the Disney Channel, which it owns outright, or on Lifetime, which it now owns a piece of (along with ESPN) thanks to yesterday's Capital Cities acquisition.

And then there are the foreign channels Disney now owns a portion of, as well as the foreign markets hungry for top American programming, which Disney can feed via satellite. Furthermore, all of this can be promoted on the network, the local television stations, local radio stations, the cable channels, the newspapers, magazines and in the theme parks Disney owns.

Tim Allen is going to give new meaning to the term "poster boy" thanks to the incredible reach of the new Disney media conglomerate -- now the largest entertainment company in the world.

No wonder Disney's Eisner yesterday said: "Think of all the things we can do together. I am totally optimistic that one and one will add up to four here."

Eisner is the man to watch in the new world of Disney/ABC. While the early announcements yesterday stressed stability, Eisner is a hands-on manager who once worked at ABC as vice president of prime-time production and development. His taste is going to determine, to a large extent, what viewers see on ABC in coming years.

The programs Eisner played a key role in developing at ABC were "Laverne & Shirley," "Welcome Back, Kotter" and "The Bionic Woman," according to media critic Les Brown. Eisner is said to like family sitcoms, such as "Home Improvement," most ** of all.

Family fare will undoubtedly continue make up a large portion of the programming on ABC.

ABC's Saturday franchise, "The ABC Family Movie," last week featured a Disney remake of the Disney's "The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes." Such programming will continue.

But it would be a big mistake to think family fare is the only direction ABC will go under Eisner, or that the network will show only Disney productions. In fact, says University of Maryland media analyst Douglas Gomery, it was Eisner's decision to start making adult-themed films when he took over as head of the Walt Disney empire in 1984. That decision took Disney Films from corporate drain to industry leader.

Films made in the 1980s under Disney's Touchstone banner included such relatively mild fare as "Down and Out in Beverly Hills" and "Stakeout." But, in recent years, Eisner has taken Disney into a harder terrain of sex and violence with such feature films as Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction," distributed by Disney-owned Miramax. Sharon Stone now has a multiple picture deal with Miramax.

"Under [Eisner's direction], Disney successfully drew adult audiences and posted greater profits than at any time since founder Walt Disney passed away in 1966," Gomery writes in his book "Movie History."

Eisner's bottom-line orientation will also guarantee that ABC's prime-time schedule contains shows he thinks will get the biggest audiences, not just the shows produced by Disney.

The new Disney-owned ABC will buy shows from CBS, NBC, Fox, HBO, Warner Brothers, Paramount or any other media company with which it thinks it can make a buck -- just like everyone else in television. For example, this fall NBC will air a sitcom called "Caroline in the City" at 8:30 Thursday night after "Friends." The series is produced by CBS Productions. Why isn't it on CBS? Because CBS Productions made a better deal with NBC, which paid more up front for the series. Why was NBC willing to pay more? Because "Caroline" was a better fit with its lineup.

The show is also expected to earn more in advertising revenue in the time period behind "Friends" than it could make for CBS anywhere on its schedule.

Eisner knows the game. He also ran Paramount, where he dramatically increased production and sales with the development of such series as "Cheers" and "Family Ties."

ABC and Disney go way back together -- to 1954, when ABC's Leonard Goldenson talked Walt Disney into doing a show on the then-pitifully weak network.

"Disneyland" was ABC's first hit show, and before long, Disney and ABC were selling Davy Crockett coonskin caps and Mickey Mouse ears all over America. It was probably our first prime-time program as infomercial -- extolling the virtues of Disneyland.

In that sense, yesterday's deal was a homecoming of sorts. Only now, Disney, not ABC, holds the keys to the magic media kingdom, and the world, not just 1950s America, is its audience in waiting.

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