Disney Channel's service clicks at last

April 20, 1993|By Knight-Ridder News Service

John Cooke, president of the Disney Channel, doesn't exactly want to accentuate the un-positive.

That would be so un-Disneylike.

Still, Mr. Cooke doesn't deny that the good old days weren't so good for the cable network that is now a phenomenal success. Back when the Disney Channel began, it occasionally looked like Goofy was in charge of programming.

The schedule was a sorry mishmash that included old cartoons, reruns of shows like "The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin," big band concerts from Disneyland and a series of lectures by Dr. Joyce Brothers.

But that was 10 years ago. Now it's anything but a Mickey Mouse operation.

This week in Los Angeles, as part of a yearlong 10th anniversary party, Mr. Cooke and the Disney Channel are kicking off a 14-city, nationwide tour with characters and cast members from the series "Adventures in Wonderland" and the "Mickey Mouse Club" to promote literacy and support local libraries.

The Disney Channel wouldn't have much to celebrate if it hadn't climbed out of a rut and transformed itself over the past decade -- changing from a kids-only channel into a broadly appealing, family-oriented programming service that attracts a sizable audience of Disney-loving grown-ups.

From 1984 through 1992, the number of Disney Channel subscribers grew from 1.7 million to 7.1 million. And despite a recession that flattened growth in the rest of the pay-cable universe, Disney Channel subscriptions averaged an industry-leading 13 percent annual growth during the past five years.

In 1992 alone, the Disney Channel picked up 832,000 subscribers -- more than twice as many as were picked up by all other pay-cable networks combined. It is likely to pass Showtime (7.6 million) this year and become the No. 2 pay-cable network behind humongous industry leader HBO (17.3 million).

Mr. Cooke, who took over as top executive at the Disney Channel in 1985, quickly attacked the network's key disadvantages: blah programming and a tiny-tot image.

The kiddie network identity curse also hampered attempts to lure big name personalities to the Disney Channel. "We couldn't get anybody to return our calls," Mr. Cooke says. He can laugh about it now because such names as Jane Seymour, Jason Robards, Ossie Davis and Anthony Hopkins have recently been involved in Disney Channel movie productions.

Plus, the Disney Channel has broadened its appeal and attracted families and adult viewers. It has a growing lineup of musical specials that feature such baby boomer-friendly artists as Paul McCartney, Tina Turner and Elton John. And weeknights, the Disney Channel has become an outlet for such films as "Gorillas in the Mist" and "Tender Mercies."

About 30 percent of current Disney Channel subscribers don't even have children, Mr. Cooke says. The reason they subscribe: their undeniable warm pop-cultural bond with the Disney name. You don't have to be a kid or a parent to get into a Disney frame of mind.

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