Disney’s Re-Purpose in Life

You will no doubt be startled to hear that Disney is describing its announced acquisition of the Fox Family Channel as a big win for consumers. This despite an earlier suggestion by Moneybox that cable executives in general should stop making such pronouncements altogether.

But since this is the spin that Disney has offered, let’s take a look. Walt Disney Co. is reportedly paying News Corp. and Saban Entertainment $3 billion-plus for Fox Family Worldwide, which is currently available in 81 million homes in the United States. As it happens, this includes my home, although I didn’t know that until I checked just now. Tonight, according to the “TV Focus” section of my local newspaper, Fox Family will broadcast The Bee Gees in Concert and, later, The 700 Club.

So why is Disney’s purchase good news for consumers? No more televised Bee Gees concerts, maybe? Perhaps so. Disney executives don’t seem to be saying much about what sort of original programming might appear on the renamed ABC Family Channel. Instead what we’re mostly hearing about is how existing ABC shows like Nightline and My Wife and Kids will be recycled on the new channel.

And, uh, what’s good about that? Well, you’ve probably heard that the proper term for “recycling,” in networkese, is “re-purposing.” And Disney President Robert Iger helpfully explains in the Wall Street Journal today why this is a good thing for you, the American cable customer: It turns out that what with so many choices on the air these days, fans of any given network show only end up watching about seven episodes per year. “People just don’t get a chance to watch that many shows,” he explains.

Exactly! Now, I only watch Nightline a few times a year, and I always assumed this was because I don’t really care for it. But now that I think about it, the real reason must be that I just don’t have enough chances to enjoy Nightline. So I guess the ideal thing would be for Disney to own as many channels as possible and make sure Nightline or whatever is in heavy rotation on all of them—that would be a real convenience for an on-the-go consumer such as myself.

Everybody loves to pick on cable companies, and the easiest target is usually whoever your local provider is—Time Warner, Cox, Comcast, and so on. People tend not to get annoyed with the “content” firms like Disney, which generally strike a public pose of being at the mercy of the distribution meanies. In fact, Disney has a tremendous amount of power over what choices are available over a given cable system. This is because several networks that it fully or partly owns are highly established brands that every cable provider wants—ESPN, Lifetime, A&E, and the Disney Channel are all in 70 million homes or more. Disney is able to use this as leverage to get more real estate on your cable dial, such as ESPN2, ESPN Classic, ESPNews, the Lifetime Movie Network, SoapNet, and so on.

SoapNet, actually, reportedly reaches 10 million homes; the centerpiece of its schedule is reruns of ABC soaps. A cynic might figure that such a network could only exist because it’s an easy way for Disney to wring extra revenue from warmed-over programming (certainly easier than, say, creating new shows that someone wants to watch). But that can’t be right. They must be doing it for the convenience of us, the viewers. It must be good news for consumers.