Disney plans to pull viewers to ABC’s season

The Associated Press
Saturday June 15, 2002

BURBANK— To boost ratings at its flagging ABC network, The Walt Disney Co. is marshaling its vast resources to promote its new fall shows everywhere from Disneyland to the big screen and even in its sports restaurants. 

The move comes after the network slipped from first to third place in the past two years and became a drag on Disney earnings. 

Ideas to drive viewers to ABC range from parades featuring ABC stars at Disney’s domestic theme parks to drink coasters at ESPN Zone restaurants. 

Even Disney-produced films will be dressed with references to ABC programs. 

If a news program is playing on a television in the film, it will be tuned to ABC. In addition, network stars may be cast much the same way Warner Bros. placed actors from its WB network in its big screen hit “Ocean’s Eleven.” 

At a meeting last week, top executives from every Disney division presented their plans to chief executive Michael Eisner and president Robert Iger, who have said fixing ABC is their top priority. 

Susan Lyne, president of ABC Entertainment, said the initiative is critical. 

“If people don’t come to sample a show, those shows are dead in the water,” she said. 

However, with its enormous reach, Disney faces the possibility of alienating viewers by turning every product into a commercial. 

“They do have to make sure they don’t blanket everything they have,” said David Joyce, an analyst with Guzman & Co. “The shotgun approach could end up being a waste of time and maybe even detract to some degree. You’re not going to necessarily promote Winnie the Pooh on ESPN.” 

Indeed, consumers may rebel if the ad message is laid on too thick. 

“There can be a backlash by the public if they feel they are a cog in the purchasing machine,” said Cheryl Leanza, deputy director of the Media Access Project, a nonprofit law firm concerned about the effects of media consolidation. 

Disney’s marketing plans are targeted to specific audiences, for example, promoting dramas such as “Push, Nevada,” a suspense show in the vein of “Twin Peaks,” on ESPN and more family friendly fare in its Disney stores. 

Cross promotion at large media companies is nothing new. AOL Time Warner, for instance, has used its AOL Internet service to sell thousands of subscriptions to Time and other magazines. Vivendi Universal and Disney use their theme parks to promote their movies. 

At Disney, ABC has often been called upon to help promote the release of a new feature film or the opening of a theme park. But since Disney acquired ABC in 1996, the network has never needed the favor returned — until now. 

Prime time ratings have slipped badly at the network, which just two years ago was riding the success of the game show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” Since the popularity of that show has waned, ABC has slipped to third behind NBC and CBS. 

In the second quarter ended March 31, revenue in Disney’s media networks division, which includes ABC, dropped 9 percent from the year-ago period to $2.2 billion. 

On the advertising front, Disney has said advertising agency Omnicom Group will spend more than $1 billion on behalf of its clients over the next year on ABC, ESPN and other outlets in what was likely the biggest deal of its kind. 

With seven new shows on its schedule, more than any other network, it’s critical for ABC to attract viewers early.