ABC Makes a Landmark Deal with Disney Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

American popular culture was changed by an agreement between the Walt Disney Company and ABC to make a long-running television series and construct a new type of amusement park.

Summary of Event

From its beginnings in 1923 as a small film studio through the close of World War II, the Disney corporate enterprise grew from a marginal operation to a successful niche filmmaking company. Walt and his older brother Roy O. Disney represented but one of the many sets of film entrepreneurs trying to make it in an industry dominated by eight major studios. Throughout the 1930’s and 1940’s, the Disney brothers failed to make theirs a major Hollywood studio even though they produced some successful films. American Broadcasting Company Walt Disney Company Television;ABC-Disney deal[ABC Disney deal] [kw]ABC Makes a Landmark Deal with Disney (Apr., 1954) [kw]Landmark Deal with Disney, ABC Makes a (Apr., 1954) [kw]Disney, ABC Makes a Landmark Deal with (Apr., 1954) American Broadcasting Company Walt Disney Company Television;ABC-Disney deal[ABC Disney deal] [g]North America;Apr., 1954: ABC Makes a Landmark Deal with Disney[04390] [g]United States;Apr., 1954: ABC Makes a Landmark Deal with Disney[04390] [c]Radio and television;Apr., 1954: ABC Makes a Landmark Deal with Disney[04390] [c]Popular culture;Apr., 1954: ABC Makes a Landmark Deal with Disney[04390] [c]Travel and recreation;Apr., 1954: ABC Makes a Landmark Deal with Disney[04390] [c]Business and labor;Apr., 1954: ABC Makes a Landmark Deal with Disney[04390] Disney, Walt Disney, Roy O. Goldenson, Leonard Parker, Fess

Initially the postwar expansionary economic environment disagreed with the Walt Disney Company. During 1948 and 1949, losses appeared on its balance sheets. Throughout the early 1950’s, problems began to mount. In 1953, they came to a crest when the new owner of Radio-Keith-Orpheum Radio-Keith-Orpheum[Radio Keith Orpheum] (RKO), the major Hollywood studio that had long distributed Disney films, broke its agreement. The new owner, billionaire Howard Hughes Hughes, Howard , dismantled his company and sent Disney out on its own.

Walt and Roy had to ante up millions of dollars to form their own film distribution arm, the Buena Vista Film Distribution Company Buena Vista Film Distribution Company . The Disney company also turned from producing animated films such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (Disney) (1937), Fantasia (1940), and Pinocchio (1940) to a greater concentration on mainstream live-action adventure films aimed at a family audience, beginning with Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (Fleischer) (1954). This attempt by the Disney studio to try to grow into a Hollywood powerhouse initially met with little success. The Disney brothers struggled to fill their new channel of distribution. The Disney filmmaking operation could not grind out feature films fast enough to support its new distribution arm. Disney needed to do something else to ensure corporate survival.

In April, 1954, the Walt Disney Company in Hollywood and the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) in New York City announced plans for a Disney television series. Network television was a new outlet for Disney but not the company’s only plan for expansion. Sensing a new audience being created by the baby boom and a new means of access in the widespread sale of automobiles, Walt and Roy Disney wanted to build a new type of theme park Disneyland (theme park) Amusement parks for families in the suburbs. Roy Disney had approached banks with the idea but could not convince conservative bank officers that Disney would build more than “another Coney Island.” The conservative financial institutions turned Roy Disney down; they wanted no part of the proposed “Disneyland.”

Walt and Roy tried a new tactic. David Sarnoff at the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) and William Paley at the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) were not interested in the proposed theme park; they turned down the Disneys cold. Leonard Goldenson of ABC, with a bankroll of millions of dollars from theaters he had been forced to sell, agreed to back Disneyland if the Disney company would produce a one-hour television series for the then-struggling ABC-TV. Goldenson, who had merged the former Paramount theaters with ABC-TV, was desperately looking for program suppliers and agreed to pay $500,000 plus $50,000 per show.

The Disneyland Disneyland (television program) television show went on the air on Wednesday nights on ABC beginning in October, 1954; it moved (as Walt Disney Presents) to Friday nights in 1958 and then to Sunday nights in 1960. It would remain a Sunday-night fixture for more than two decades, becoming Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color when it moved to NBC in 1961, then The Wonderful World of Disney in 1969 and Disney’s Wonderful World in 1979. CBS took over the show in 1981, as Walt Disney, and showed it for several years.

The show gave ABC-TV its first top-twenty ratings hit. The show finished sixth in the ratings for the television season that ran from September, 1954, through May, 1955. Thereafter, the Disney television show rarely fell out of the top ten. It finished fourth in 1955-1956 and thirteenth in 1956-1957. Its appearance in the top twenty from 1964 through 1975 signaled one of the great successes in television’s history.

This pioneering television series was designed to kindle interest in the Disneyland theme park, which opened in July, 1955. ABC-TV took a one-third financial interest in the park, as well as all profits from food concessions for the first ten years, in exchange for providing financing. Disneyland proved to be an instant hit, forever transforming the Disney company. Walt and Roy sought to follow up with an even more popular park. They began the complex in Orlando, Florida, but Disney World would not open until October, 1971, years after Walt’s death and only months before Roy died. The Walt Disney Company and ABC-TV worked to cross-promote their products. The Disneyland television series served as a weekly advertisement for the Disneyland park and later for Disney World.

At first, the Disneyland show featured animation and live-action films from the Disney film library in addition to “specials” centered in the theme parks. The show’s four-part rotation even reflected the divisions of the California park: Frontierland, Fantasyland, Tomorrowland, and Adventureland. One segment of the Disney television effort on ABC-TV surpassed all expectations. The December, 1954, “Davy Crockett: Indian Fighter” "Davy Crockett, Indian Fighter" (television program)[Davy Crockett, Indian Fighter] episode, shown during Frontierland, created a national obsession of enormous proportions. Two more episodes about Crockett aired in January and February of 1955, with Crockett killed in the second of these. By mid-1955, “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” "Ballad of Davy Crockett, The" (Blackburn and Bruns)[Ballad of Davy Crockett, The] had become a pop music hit, coonskin caps were the rage among children, and actor Fess Parker had become one of television’s first true stars. Disney made several more Davy Crockett episodes, depicting incidents earlier in his life, when the company recognized the popularity of the first three episodes.

The ABC-TV deal proved to be the cornerstone of the new Disney corporate empire. There was one more important new corporate strategy: the regular re-releases of classic feature-length Disney films. In approximately seven-year cycles, heralded on Disney’s television show, the company put Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio, among other films, back onto the theater screens of the world. Other studio films might be shown on television, but Disney feature-length animation classics could be seen only during the holidays in theaters. The results of the re-releases often were spectacular. For example, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was rereleased in 1952, 1958, and 1967 and earned nearly $50 million more from worldwide markets.


Walt Disney died in 1966, and Roy Disney five years later. Walt had become famous and both brothers had become rich, based largely on their initial contract with ABC-TV and the resulting exploitation of television and theme parks. In stark contrast, Goldenson stood in the background, remaining head of his television network well into the 1980’s. Goldenson was known only to insiders in the television business. Only they knew that he ranked with Sarnoff of NBC and Paley of CBS as one of the executives who created American network television.

The Disney-ABC deal merged television and Hollywood. Prior to this arrangement, Hollywood studios had been trying to take over television, seeking ways to own and operate stations. The studios resisted helping television unless they could also own the stations. ABC proved that former radio networks would and could operate the stations and networks, and that Hollywood would have to be satisfied producing programs.

In the years immediately following the success of the Disneyland show, Warner Bros., a major studio, moved directly into television production. The other major Hollywood studios soon followed. By 1960 television production was almost entirely on film, principally produced in Hollywood. The days of live television drama done from New York City were over. Disney and ABC made Hollywood the center of television production and the major Hollywood studios the locus of that production.

Parker perhaps was not the first person to reach the national consciousness based solely on television fame, but he certainly was among the first. Previously, it took fame in the movies to launch a career; after Parker’s success playing Davy Crockett, television more and more became the means to achieve fame and fortune. Disney and ABC-TV proved that the small screen found in increasing numbers of homes was a mass communication apparatus of massive power.

Television enabled the Disney brothers to move their operation into the big time, but it did not make them infallible. The Fantasyland segments allowed exposure of Disney cartoon characters such as Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. The Mickey Mouse Club, a children’s show featuring a cast of child members of the fan club in addition to cartoons and other recurring elements, began airing in 1955. The Disneyland show surely helped develop the Mickey Mouse fan club phenomenon.

Disney changed the nature of amusement parks. Prior to Disneyland, amusement parks had been located at the ends of trolley or subway lines, seeking to promote ridership. Most were on a small scale. No one would mistake Disneyland for Coney Island. Disney World would change the nature of American vacation patterns.

The long-run Disney corporate “magic” focused on meshing all these elements, forming an entertainment conglomerate. The Walt Disney Company, at first in partnership with ABC, symbiotically promoted its theme parks, films, and television series so as to create a corporate image of having fun. The popular culture of the United States—indeed, of the world—has never been the same. American Broadcasting Company Walt Disney Company Television;ABC-Disney deal[ABC Disney deal]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goldenson, Leonard H. Beating the Odds. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1991. A candid autobiography by the person who created ABC-TV. The deal with Disney is described in some detail, as is the impact on ABC-TV in particular and on the television industry in general. Should be read in conjunction with Inside ABC by Sterling Quinlan.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Grover, Ron. The Disney Touch. Rev. ed. Chicago: Irwin Professional, 1997. Offers a business perspective on the fascinating history of the Disney company, from its founding to the late 1980’s. This is no corporate puffery but rather an objective analysis of why Disney succeeded and was able to maintain its success.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Maltin, Leonard. The Disney Films. 4th ed. New York: Disney Editions, 2000. The definitive filmography for the Walt Disney Company during Walt Disney’s lifetime. Contains a great deal of information on the changing Disney output during the 1950’s. A first-rate book.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Quinlan, Sterling. Inside ABC: American Broadcasting Company’s Rise to Power. New York: Hastings House, 1979. A serious history of ABC, tendered by a former vice president of the company. Offers significant detail on the ABC-TV and Disney deal. Should be read in conjunction with Goldenson’s Beating the Odds.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sammond, Nicholas. Babes in Tomorrowland: Walt Disney and the Making of the American Child, 1930-1960. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2005. An encyclopedic, well-researched study of how American children are shaped through a symbiotic relationship between media, entertainment, and culture industry giants such as Disney. Argues that Disney would not have been able to influence children’s development so profoundly had society not had in place a “vision” of normalcy for children before Disney’s arrival on the cultural scene.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schickel, Richard. The Disney Version: The Life, Times, Art, and Commerce of Walt Disney. 3d ed. New York: Ivan R. Dee, 1997. The first outsider history of the Disney company. Includes an updated introduction. Especially valuable for its frank evaluation of the corporate culture. A critique rather than a corporate public relations tale.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Telotte, J. P. Disney TV. Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University Press, 2004. A brief account of the Wonderful World of Disney television show. Part of the Contemporary Approaches to Film and Television series.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thomas, Bob. Walt Disney: An American Original. 1976. New ed. New York: Disney Editions, 2004. An excellent treatment of Walt Disney the animator and his dream. Portrays Disney as an optimistic visionary who nevertheless had a solid grip on what people wanted. Weaker on how Disney expected to run a separate community within the laws of Florida and the nation.

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Categories: History