From the ‘Wonderful World of Disney’ to Disney+: How Disney Continuously Redefines Our Television Viewing

When the Walt Disney Company launches the Disney+ streaming service this coming November 12, many pundits and fans alike think the service might change the face of broadcasting thanks to its price-point and access to the Disney IP library. While we can’t say for sure if that will happen, it wouldn’t be the first time that the company turned television broadcasting on its head. In fact, Disney has been altering the TV landscape since just after the medium launched.


As television became a major part of the American pop cultural landscape in the early 1950s, many Hollywood producers viewed the medium with skepticism, if not outright scorn. See, many in the film industry thought that audiences would stop going to movie theaters if they could get the same quality of content in their homes — a misguided notion that many sports team owners also shared. However, Walt Disney – arguably the most recognizable filmmaker in Hollywood at the time – embraced television as a way to finance his greatest dream.

As unbelievable as it may sound to modern (mouse) ears, Walt was having trouble securing funding for Disneyland in the early 50s, as many potential investors thought the public wouldn’t understand the theme park concept. Desperate to spread the word (and secure the money), Walt began pitching a Disneyland television series to network executives. After being turned down by both CBS and NBC, the series found a home on then-third-place ABC.

Walt Disney and friends on the cover of TV Guide magazine, which ran in October of 1954. [TV Guide]

The show premiered in 1954 and became a massive ratings hit out of the gate thanks to productions like the Fess Parker-featured Davey Crockett series, which became a national sensation that sold millions in merchandise. In fact, that success led to ABC becoming one of Disneyland’s largest investors for the first few years of the Park’s life (a fact that would become more than a bit ironic four decades later, but let’s not jump ahead).

In a genius move, each week Walt Disney’s Disneyland presented programming that thematically linked to one of Disneyland’s original lands – Frontierland, Adventureland, Fantasyland, and Tomorrowland – allowing Walt, who served as the show’s gregarious host, to advertise his Park to millions of viewers each and every week.

The move proved to be shrewd one, as a special broadcast of Disney’s opening day festivities drew an audience of over 90 million people and helped the Park become a massive success immediately. The series would continue to air films – both made for television and live action and animated Disney theatrical releases –  on American network television, bouncing between ABC, NBC, and CBS, nearly uninterrupted until 1990. Over that time, the series had numerous title changes, being known at various times as Walt Disney Presents, Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, The Wonderful World of Disney, Disney’s Wonderful World, The Disney Sunday Movie, and The Magical World of Disney.

In addition to their network foothold, Disney decided to enter the then-emerging world of cable television with the launch of The Disney Channel. Additional a premium channel – akin to HBO – the channel was one of the first cable stations to specifically cater to families as well as focus on a specific company’s brand. Initially the channel focused on content from the Disney vault, including films, TV series, and documentaries. However, by the late 1990s, the channel had been moved to most cable provider’s basic packages, and had shifted its focus from archival content to original films and sitcoms aimed at the tween demographic. The channel, now referred to simply as Disney Channel, is currently one of the highest rated in all of cable television.

At the same time that they were transforming The Disney Channel in the 1990s, Disney fundamentally changed the American network TV landscape yet again. In 1996, the company purchased the ABC television network – hence the aforementioned irony of ABC bankrolling a huge part of Disneyland’s early operation – turning it into a power corporate arm of the company. Disney revamped the channel almost immediately, including reviving The Wonderful World of Disney in 1997. This version, hosted in the early years by then Disney CEO Michael Eisner, relied more heavily on theatrically released films than its predecessors and ran until 2008. The Company still occasionally uses the Wonderful World of Disney branding to this day.

The ABC purchase also gave Disney control of the pioneering sports network  ESPN – huh, television didn’t put sports teams out of business after all. Who knew? – and has led to 20+ years of cross-promotion between the two entities.

While it’s still left to be seen how successful Disney+ is going to be, one look at Disney’s past in television tells us that they’re likely about to turn the whole industry on its head.

Have any favorite Disney television memories? Planning on signing up to Disney+ on day one? Let us know in the comments below?


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