Monday, February 11, 2013

The Beginnings of Disney TVA

When I was a mere slip of a boy working at Disney Feature Animation (more about that tomorrow), a friend in Disney's publicity department steered me to the transcripts of a lengthy interview done with Walt Disney in 1964 for the Saturday Evening Post. One of the exchanges that caught my eye was this:

Q: Walt, you do animated features. Why don't you do television cartoons like Hanna-Barbera?

WD: We did that kind of animation, those crude, limited shorts, back in the twenties. Did a lot of them, just cranked them out, like they do TV stuff today. I don't really want to go back to doing those things again. Hanna and Barbera can make them. ...

Walt died a couple of years later. And eighteen years after that, Walt Disney Productions changed its CEO ... and its mind ... about television cartoons:

... After taking control of the Walt Disney company in 1984, Michael Eisner and Frank Wells had a simple goal for the company’s animation division: It had to be at the top of every possible medium. ...

DuckTales, the most successful show of Disney’s short-lived television-animation renaissance—and a show that kicked off a brief interest in syndicated afternoon animation from a host of media companies—has mostly disappeared from the limelight. ... It’s an understatement to say DuckTales was a hit. Not only did it lead to a huge number of additional Disney animated shows that entered the “Disney afternoon” syndication package—shows like Chip ’N’ Dale Rescue Rangers, TaleSpin, and Darkwing Duck—but it led to other studios raiding their own cabinets to see what could be reworked into programs that would entertain America’s bored latchkey kids. With the rise of two-income households, there were more and more kids out there who couldn’t be bothered to do their homework until someone made them, and an army of shows marched onto TV to entertain them, including legitimate classics like Animaniacs and Batman: The Animated Series.

DuckTales was the first, however, and it served almost as a statement of purpose. Rather than trying to be as kid-friendly as possible, the series made its protagonist an irascible old man. Rather than celebrating the sorts of family-friendly virtues Disney was associated with, the series was about the awesomeness of unchecked avarice and greed. ...

Which, come to think of it, fit right in with Diz Co. after Walt Disney. The Founder didn't want to repeat himself, but the Founder was long gone. And the watchwords were now "maximize profits."

I was at the studio when Michael Eisner came up with the title (and idea) for Disney TVA's first series, The Gummi Bears. There were Disney feature staffers who were less than enthralled with the idea of Walt Disney Productions jumping into television animation, but I had no strong position on the subject. I had read Walt's thoughts on small-screen animation, but I understood that the parade had moved on, and the focus now was cash flow and profits.

The Disney Company might still be named for Walt, but the fine entertainment conglomerate that he left behind has only slightly more connection with its namesake than Time-Warner does to Jack L. Warner.


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