Disney lets adults view, too

May 20, 1992|By New York Times News Service

Hollywood -- Adecade ago the Disney Channel was strictly for kids.

"We had cartoons, old movies and our audience was -- let's face it -- very, very young," said John F. Cooke, the president of the pay channel.

How young? Twelve years old? "That's too old," Mr. Cooke said with a gentle laugh. "I would say 7 or 8."

Today, the Disney Channel has emerged as the fastest-growing pay service on television, an outlet that has sought successfully to retain its young audience while expanding significantly into the teen-age and adult market.

From 1984 until last year, the number of subscribers to the channel climbed from 1.7 million to 6.2 million.

By contrast, Home Box Office, the largest pay-television service, had a much smaller gain in subscribers in the same period, from 14.5 million to 17.2 million, as audiences on pay television generally leveled off.

The process of luring adults to Disney, while successful, is a delicate one. Unlike such outlets as Home Box Office, which prides itself on its sometimes provocative feature films and series, Disney remains family oriented and both blessed and burdened by the Disney name.

It is blessed because the Disney name is a virtual metaphor on television for young people's entertainment and has a built-in audience.

It is burdened because the symbolism of Disney, as white-bread entertainment, places distinct limits on the kinds of programming on the channel.

"I took this job in 1985 in spite of the fact that a lot of people told me I shouldn't because they thought this channel couldn't go anywhere," said Mr. Cooke, a buttoned-down, bespectacled executive who was formerly executive vice president of Times Mirror Cable Television.

"When I talked to Michael Eisner about the position, he said, 'We really don't know what to do about the channel.' I said, 'After you've thought about it, Michael, talk to me.' And he said: 'No. You decide."

The gamble by Mr. Eisner, chairman of the Walt Disney Co., paid off. "The company was, quite frankly, late in the market," Mr. Eisner said. He added that initially the channel was dominated by old material from the Disney library.

He continued: "So we started off with a very good executive, John, who reduced the library way down, who began doing miniseries of some importance, who raised the quality of the programs to make it an all-family channel. It is the place where the baton of Disney culture is passed from one generation to the other."

Mr. Cooke and Mr. Eisner acknowledge that they had nowhere to go but up, because the channel's programming was almost charmingly awful in the early 1980s.

OC Late afternoon and evening programs, for the teen-age and adult

Disney crowd, were dominated by a series of lectures by the psychologist Dr. Joyce Brothers, a Steve Allen comedy show, the black-and-white 1950s series "Mickey Mouse Club" and "The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin," silent Charlie Chaplin movies, and big-band concerts at Disneyland by Les Brown, Tommy Dorsey and Buddy Rich.

Mr. Cooke moved carefully and quickly to extend the appeal of the channel, while seeking to keep it family oriented.

Now, films appear at night like "Tender Mercies," with Robert Duvall and Tess Harper, and Kenneth Branagh's version of "Henry V."

More significant, an up-to-date and fairly hip version of "Mickey Mouse Club," intended to appeal to teen-agers, at 5:30 p.m. during the week, is the channel's highest-rated daytime program.

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