Tag Archives: Michael Eisner

“All Sports, All The Time”

The familiar logo of ESPN, the sports cable TV network.
The familiar logo of ESPN, the sports cable TV network.
      In July 1978, Bill Rasmussen of Bristol, Connecticut, a former sportscaster and recently fired communications man for the New England Whalers ice hockey team, came up with the idea of creating a regional sports TV network.  Rasmussen had already been thinking about how to syndicate the Whalers ice hockey games and University of Connecticut basketball on the state’s cable systems.  Cable television then was still in its infancy.  CNN, MTV, HBO or anything approaching a major cable system had yet to emerge nationally.  Rasmussen and his son, Scott, a former sports announcer, met with an RCA salesman inquiring about the cost of channel space on a new communications satellite.  In 1978, an all-sports cable network was hardly a “no brainer.” The three TV networks combined then broadcast only about 20 hours of sports a week.They learned that it was cheaper to buy round-the-clock time than individual blocks of several hours.  But then, the big question became how to use all that time?  On a road trip by car to New Jersey in August 1978, Rasmussesn and his son argued about what to do.  That’s when they hit upon the idea of “all sports all the time”– offering continuous sports programming over cable around the clock.  This plan was hardly a “no brainer” at the time, especially since even the three major TV networks combined only broadcast about 20 hours of sports a week.  Still, a Wall Street Journal article that Rasmussen had read pointed up the groundswell and potential in the new cable TV business, and he suspected that he might be on to something.  Yet finding the content, the financing, and the help needed to undertake such a venture would be formidable.  The next several months were spent organizing, doing paperwork, and seeking sponsors.

     After being turned down by a half a dozen or more potential investors, Rasmussen met Stu Evey an executive vice president at Getty Oil who managed a variety of projects for the oil company.  Evey used Getty’s financial experts to analyze the market and evaluate what might result from investing in the new venture.  In February 1979, Getty initially agreed to put up $43,000 for an option to buy 85 percent of the new cable sports network.  Millions more in Getty dollars would follow.Sports Illustrated called ESPN “one of the strangest creations in the history of mass communications.”  Stu Evey would become ESPN’s first chairman and would later write a book about the experience (see below).  On September 7, 1979, a Saturday evening at 7 p.m., the “Entertainment Sports Programming Network” launched its first program as a regional sports cable channel.  It began with a show called “Sports Center.”  A few weeks later RCA awarded Rasmussen the satellite space for 24-hour programming.  ESPN was on its way, for good or ill.  The first few years entailed a hodge-podge of programming — slow-pitch softball, kick boxing, racquetball, volleyball, karate, Australian Rules football, Irish hurling, tractor pulls, and other arcane sports. Broadcasting through the weekends and a few hours each weekday, the station lost millions of dollars.  Sports Illustrated called it “one of the strangest creations in the history of mass communications.”  Still, ESPN had the industry’s attention.


NCAA Basketball

Former Getty Oil v.p. Stu Evey's 2004 book on the making of ESPN.
Former Getty Oil v.p. Stu Evey's 2004 book on the making of ESPN.
      Early on, Rasmussen had also rounded up broadcasting rights for University of Connecticut sports events, and later other National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) games, including tape-delayed college football games and NCAA basketball games.  In 1979, fan interest in college basketball had been ignited by two young rival players named Magic Johnson and Larry Bird who battled each other in the 1979 NCAA finals.  In 1979, fan interest in college basketball had been ignited by two young rival players named Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.However, there was little TV coverage of the games leading up to the NCAA finals until ESPN stepped in with live and tape-delay coverage.  Those games proved a big boost to ESPN’s growing following.  Gradually, executives and sportscasters were lured from some of the other networks and a handful of anchors became regulars — among them, Chris Berman, Tom Mees, Bob Ley, and Dick Vitale.  Rasmussen, meanwhile, became less involved as the network grew more corporate, staying on the board of directors through 1981 but later cashing out.

     In August 1982, ABC television agreed to supply some programming to ESPN in exchange for an option to purchase up to 49 percent of the company. ESPN meanwhile, began more coverage of college football in 1982, and a year later began its first professional sports broadcasting with the games of the fledgling United States Football League (USFL). The USFL coverage lasted three years and also included some programming outside of the U.S. ESPN also made a major business change in 1983 by beginning to charge cable companies — rather than paying them — for carrying its programming. Even though this only resulted in pennies per subscriber per year, it nonetheless marked a turning point toward profitability. Still, ESPN was operating in the red but it was now reaching more than 23 million households.


ABC & Cap Cities

In 1984, ABC shelled out more than 225 million to acquire ESPN.
In 1984, ABC shelled out more than 225 million to acquire ESPN.
      In January 1984, as a result of its earlier programming deal requiring ABC to purchase at least 10 percent of ESPN, ABC acquired 15 percent of ESPN for $25 million, with the right to purchase more in the future. It also turned out that ESPN’s majority owner, Getty, was itself in play, and was sold to Texaco. ABC then shelled out $202 million to Texaco in April 1984 to buy the remaining shares of ESPN. ABC then sold off a 20 percent piece of ESPN to raise cash, a share later owned by the Hearst Corporation. ABC by this time was itself quite prominent in sports broadcasting, having among other things, Monday Night Football, extensive Olympic coverage, and college football coverage under the leadership of Roone Arledge. With ABC as owner, ESPN continued to grow, adding National Hockey League games in 1985. Then in 1986, another change in ownership occurred when Capital Cities Communication, a large broadcasting group, acquired ABC for $3.5 billion. Still, under Cap Cities, both ABC and ESPN continued their growth in sports broadcasting. In November 1987, ESPN began its Sunday Night Football program featuring NFL games. This marked a major development in cable’s arrival as significant player in sports programming. Two years later, ESPN signed a $400 million deal with Major League Baseball.

In 1990, The Wall Street Journal ranked ESPN # 1 on cable, ahead of CNN & MTV, with 54.8 million subscribers. By the early 1990s, the cable TV revolution was in full flower with CNN, MTV, and other major networks. And in the new industry, ESPN was found among the top players. A Wall Street Journalranking of the major cable operators in 1990 placed ESPN at #1 with 54.8 million subscribers, ahead of #2 CNN with 53.8 million, and #6 MTV with 49.3 million. ESPN was still growing. In March 1992 ESPN’s international division acquired 50 percent of the European Sports Network. At home, ESPN Sports Radio was also launched in 1992 and a second TV channel, ESPN-2, debuted in October 1993 beginning a focus on sports such as soccer, in-line skating, and mountain biking. In early May 1994, ESPN acquired Creative Sports a TV/radio sports marketing, syndication, and production company which was later renamed ESPN Regional Television. In January 1995, ESPN distributed the Super Bowl game to television outlets in more than 100 countries. Then came Disney.


Disney Takes Over

     In August 1995, the Walt Disney Company, one of the world’s largest entertainment corporations, announced it would acquire Cap Cities/ABC for $19 billion. The deal stunned Wall Street and the entertainment industry. But one of the assets Disney was most pleased about getting in the deal was ESPN. At the time, Disnsey’s chairman Michael Eisner called ESPN “a magic name,” comparable to Coca-Cola or Kodak in brand recognition. The all-sports network by then was seen in 66.3 million American households and 95 million around the world. ESPN had already become a booming profit center for ABC. “The channel has been our biggest growth area on a percentage basis over the past five years,” said Robert A. Iger, ABC’s president in August 1995. Disney’s Michael Eisner called ESPN “a magic name,” comparable to Coca-Cola or Kodak in brand recognition. Media analysts were then projecting good days ahead. ESPN and ESPN-2 were slated to generate cash flow of $350 million in 1995 and $400 million in 1996, making it the most profitable of all cable TV services. ESPN was then worth between $4 billion and $5 billion. Everywhere that Disney CEO Michael Eisner went in New York that August touting the deal — from newspaper and radio interviews to Larry King Live — he couldn’t say enough about ESPN. He also saw the possibility of “brand build-out” just as Disney had done with its own products. “We know that when we lay Mickey Mouse or Goofy on top of products, we get pretty creative stuff,” Eisner said. “ESPN has the potential to be that kind of brand. ABC has never had our resources, and we haven’t had ESPN. Put the two together and who knows what we get.” ESPN’s sports fare was also unique in its live coverage aspects, marketable most anywhere in the world.

     ABC and Disney executives had already concluded that the most exportable forms of TV entertainment were sports and children’s programming because they have universal appeal and offend no political position. “But the leverage of those two together in what used to be third world countries, or closed countries, is enormous,” explained Eisner in August 1995. The most “exportable” forms of TV entertain- ment, it was thought, were sports and children’s programming because they had universal appeal and offended no political position. “There are 250 million people in the middle-class of India alone…” Disney also liked ESPN’s aggressive marketing of its sports news and information around the world, from Latin America and Europe to Asia and Australia, seeing additional potential for cable and satellite-delivered, locally popular sports like cricket in India or table tennis in China. “We think sports is a good inter-national language,” said Steven Bornstein, ESPN’s president. Disney technology could then transmit a single channel into every corner of the globe, and was looking for more new and distinct programming to telecast and incorporate into its stores and theme parks.


1997: ESPN Classic begins.
1997: ESPN Classic begins.
      Under Disney’s umbrella, ESPN continued to grow in new ways, including acquisitions. In early October 1997, ESPN acquired Classic Sports Network, a 24-hour, all-sports network that had taken form in the Midwest, since renamed ESPN Classic. This channel initially focused on older, “classic” sporting events and sports stars from the past, and developed a loyal following. Meanwhile, for the year 1997, ESPN registered solid growth and was more profitable than NBC. Disney continued helping ESPN extend its brand with ESPN stores and ESPN-themed products. Prior to the Disney acquisition, one of
'ESPN Zone' restaurant & enter-tainment center at 1472 Broadway in New York.
'ESPN Zone' restaurant & enter-tainment center at 1472 Broadway in New York.
the first ESPN restaurants had already been planned for Disney’s Boardwalk at Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. Disney would subsequently help ESPN build more “ESPN Zone” restaurants, some with expanded entertainment centers. There are now at least eight of these restaurant and entertainment centers in the U.S. — Anaheim, Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Denver, Las Vegas, New York, and Washington — each complete with gaming rooms, big-screen TVs, and hundreds of smaller TV throughout, broadcasting ESPN fare and other programs.

     In 1998, ESPN The Magazine was launched, and has since become a serious competitor to Time, Inc.’s Sports Illustrated with nearly 2 million subscribers. In 2001, the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society was acquired and became the basis for more than two dozen ESPN Bass tournament and fishing shows. In 2002, ESPN and ABC acquired television broadcasting rights for National Basketball Association (NBA) games. But football continued to be a mother lode for ESPN. In 2005, when ESPN paid $1.1 billion for the rights to Monday Night Football, some business analysts thought the network paid a too rich a price. But by the end of 2006 it was clear that ESPN had captured a worthy share of households and cable viewers — averaging in the 10-to 12-million range — and producing the largest household audiences of the year for at least 16 consecutive weeks. But still more contracts were on the way.

European soccer, 2006.
European soccer, 2006.
      In December 2006, ESPN and ABC landed rights for the European Soccer Championships, most carried on ESPN outlets, along with Spanish language rights for ESPN’s Deportes network and pay TV in Latin America. For the year 2006, Disney reported that ESPN delivered double-digit growth for company, both in revenue and operating profit. Its ratings overall were also up. During 2006, in fact, more people watched ESPN’s four U.S. cable channels than ever before. And Disney fully expected the trend to continue, especially with the addition of ESPN-hosted NASCAR auto-racing, America’s fastest growing spectator sport.

ESPN, The Magazine, Aug 06.
ESPN, The Magazine, Aug 06.
      Today, ESPN is a giant global sports broadcasting and marketing behemoth worth billions of dollars. In December 2006, investment bank UBS announced at a New York conference that they had determined ESPN’s value to be $28 billion, accounting for about 40 percent of Disney’s $70.7 billion market capitalization.In 2006, UBS determined ESPN to account for about 40% of Disney’s market cap. In addition to its four U.S. television networks –ESPN, ESPN-2, ESPN Classic & ESP NEWS — it also has 24 ESPN inter-national networks that broadcast in eleven languages. ESPN also operates a dedicated college sports TV channel, various internet websites, video games, CDs and DVDs, holds a number of mobile-media content deals, and more.

     A summary of some of ESPN’s more prominent parts and its ever-growing empire follows below:


The flagship network, ESPN, is now seen in 94 million households with programming that inlcudes coverage of more than 65 sports including MLB, NBA, NFL’s Monday Night Football, NASCAR, FIFA World Cup, WNBA, college football, men’s and women’s college basketball, golf, Little League World Series, and the X Games. ESPN Original Entertainment creates branded programming outside of ESPN’s normal fare, and ESPN on Demand offers sports and other exclusive content from ESPN and outside sources.


ESPN-2 is now seen in over 93 million households. Its programming features NASCAR racing, MLB, college football and basketball, golf, tennis, FIFA World Cup, MLS, and more. It also offers “Cold Pizza,” a two-hour morning show that combines sports with pop culture and “lifestyle features.”

ESPN Classic

ESPN Classic is available in over 63 million homes. Its programming focuses on sports history, and “classic” games, personalities, and stories from the world of sports, such as shows from the ESPN Big Fights Library. Its documentaries and programming have won Emmy and Peabody Awards, such as for its “SportsCentury” show. Its coverage generally relates to all the major professional sports plus college football and basketball.


Begun in November 1996 with 1.5 million subscribers. ESPNEWS is the only 24-hour sports news network and has established itself as a major sports news and information source in more than 60 million homes.


ESPN-U is the 24-hour college sports TV network that specializes in college sports. It was launched in March 2005. ESPN-U has college marketing agreements with universities and colleges in Kansas, Oregon, and South Florida. In August 2006, ESPNU premiered ESPNU.com., a dedicated website that includes live streaming college sports events, podcasts, and other material from ESPN and elsewhere.

ESPN-U has college marketing agreements with universities and colleges in Kansas, Oregon, and South Florida.








ESPN Regional TV

Also known as ERT or ESPN Plus, ESPN Regional Television is one of the largest TV/radio sports marketing, syndication and production companies, producing more than 900 events annually for ESPN networks, ABC, and other national, regional and local outlets. ERT is the nation’s largest syndicator of intercollegiate sports programming, and produces more than 900 college TV programs, including football, basketball, NCAA events, golf and other events. ERT also produces five ESPN-organized football Bowl games, and also the College Football Awards program. In addition, ERT is the production headquarters for ESPN-U.

ESPN Radio

ESPN Radio and affiliates comprise the nation’s largest sports radio network, providing content to more than 700 stations nationwide, including those in the 100 top markets. It has 350 full-time affiliates including owned stations in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, and Pittsburgh. Its programming is also available to U.S. troops in more than 175 countries through American Forces Networks. Programming includes: NBA and Major League Baseball games, college football playoffs and other coverage. An affiliate web site, ESPNRadio.com is one of the most visited online sports radio sites in the U.S., logging as many as 250,000 online listeners per month, also producing more than 35 original podcasts each week accounting for more than four million downloads per month to portable digital devices.



ESPN’s web site, ESPN.com, launched in April 1995 is the leading sports Web site, averaging 18 million unique users per month, more than any other sports Web site, according to Neilsen Netratings.  It produces 350-450 new videos each week, featuring daily highlights, news, interviews, and originally produced exclusive content.ESPN.com is the leading sports web site, averaging 18 million users per month, more than any other sports web site. The site also features up-to-the-minute sports news, statistics, analysis and scores; multiple free and premium fantasy games; free online poker; live event webcasts; live chat with players, ESPN experts, sports personalities; a wide array of sports journalism including that of ESPN The Magazine.


ESPN Mobile

ESPN also provides up-to-the-minute scores, stats, news headlines, video and some exclusive programming to numerous mobile and wireless providers such as Verizon, QUALCOMM and others. It has features agreements with every major U.S. carrier and 35 international carriers. ESPN Mobile TV offers 24/7 streaming video of ESPN news, highlights, live games and events. ESPN’s wireless Internet site is the #1 wireless sports content site, generating nearly nine million unique visitors monthly.

October 9, 2006 issue of 'ESPN The Magazine' -- covers sports mostly, but sometimes a Tom Cruise story or two may also appear.
October 9, 2006 issue of 'ESPN The Magazine' -- covers sports mostly, but sometimes a Tom Cruise story or two may also appear.
ESPN Books

ESPN Books, started in 2004, is a publishing company operated by ESPN that has published about 20 books so far. ESPN Books also produces ESPN’s yearly sports encyclopedia and operates its own book club.

ESPN The Magazine

Launched in March 1998, ESPN The Magazine has a circulation base of 1.95 million. It covers a variety of sports news and offers in-depth commentary, opinion, and top photography. The magazine also includes occasional stories on celebrities and entertainment. In 2003 and 2006 it won National Magazine awards for general excellence. The magazine’s covers have also been noted by the American Society of Magazine Editors.




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Date Posted:  2 April 2008
Last Update: 3 April 2008
Comments to: jdoyle@pophistorydig.com

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “All Sports, All The Time, 1978-2008,”
PopHistoryDig.com, April 2, 2008.





Sources, Links & Additional Information

“ESPN Turns 26,” Rasmussen Reports.com, Wednesday, September 7, 2005.

Bill Rasmussen, Sports Junkies Rejoice! The Birth of ESPN, Q V Pub., November 1983.

“Bill Rasmussen,” Think Quest, library.thinkquest.org

Tom Sowa, “With Eye to Future, Ex-ESPN Chairman Looks Back,”Spokane Review (Spokane, WA), Sunday, June 6, 2004.

Lee Alan Hill, “Building a TV Sports Empire; How ESPN Created a Model for Cable Success,” Television Week, September 6, 2004.

ESPN,” Wikipedia.com.

Stuart Evey, ESPN: Creating an Empire – The No-Holds-Barred Story of Power, Ego, Money, and Vision That Transformed a Culture, Triumph Books, September 2004.

Michael J. Freeman ESPN: The Uncensored History, Taylor Publishing, April 2000.

“ABC Unit to Buy Stake in ESPN,” New York Times, January 4, 1984.

“Top Ten Cable Networks,” Wall Street Journal, March 19, 1990.

Bill Carter and Richard Sandomir, “The Trophy In Eisner’s Big Deal,” New York Times, August 6, 1995.

Michael Eisner, Work in Progress, Random House, 1998.

Jeffrey Ressner, “Cable TV’s Big Fish Fight,” Time, October 2, 2005.

Howard Bloom, “The King of all Sports Media – ESPN,” Sports Business News, Wednesday, December 20, 2006.





“Disney’s Movie Vault”

The 1940 film Pinocchio wasn’t released for home video sale until 1985, when it first sold 600,000 copies.
The 1940 film Pinocchio wasn’t released for home video sale until 1985, when it first sold 600,000 copies.
      In the early 1980s, as the home video market began to emerge, the Walt Disney Company was reluctant to release its classic animated movies for home use.  The video market began primarily as a rental business, and later moved to sales.  In 1983, the home video market was small, with only about 10 percent of U.S. homes having video cassette recorders (VCRs).  Disney at the time was involved in limited rentals, and to a lesser extent, some sales of old cartoons and action films.  But in 1985, none of the Disney classics such as Snow White (1938), Pinocchio (1940), Cinderella (1950) or Sleeping Beauty (1959) had been released for home video use — rental or sales.  Disney kept these classics locked up in its vault, regarding them as a kind of Disney gold, only to be “marketed” through controlled release to movie theaters.  It was Disney policy and economic strategy that these films should not be available for home rental or purchase.  That philosophy would soon change, however,  as Disney began to see — and became a primary force in creating — the huge and ever-expanding home video market.  But first, consider the classic film Pinocchio as Disney struggled internally with the changing market in 1985.


Pinocchio’s Profits

     Pinocchio had been released to theaters in 1945, 1954, 1962, 1971, 1978, and 1984.  The strategy ingrained in the company was to release their classics to theaters every 7-to-10 years or so, and then back to the vault.  That was about the right time interval according to Disney; time enough for a new generation to see the film for the first time. As the company then calculated, this limited exposure would be repeated for each new generation while preserving the film’s economic value.  Releasing its classic films for sale on home video, went the company’s thinking at the time, would mean losing control of major assets by permanently moving them into the homes of millions of Americans.  So Disney rationed its classic animated films — only to theaters.

     This logic continued to reign at Disney until 1985 when an internal debate began over whether to release Pinocchio that summer on home video and how to price it.  The continuing internal argument against home video release was that Disney would lose the value of the movie by selling it.  A somewhat odd middle course to marketing the film was then taken: Disney would price the movie for sale at $79.95, a price so high that management figured people would rent it at a cheaper price rather than buying it. “The initial fear of diluting the value of our classics… began to pale beside the enormous profits we could earn…”+Michael Eisner, CEO Video stores, however, wouldn’t buy the film at that price. Disney then revised its plan in August 1985, pricing the Pinocchio VHS video for sale at $29.95.  It sold 600,000 copies with only a modest marketing effort, suggesting to Disney there was a lot more market here than they first thought.

     But the debate continued internally over the two strategies: home video sales vs. theater release only. There were still prominent voices within Disney for protecting the value of its classics.  In November 1985, the next film to be considered was Sleeping Beauty (1959).  The film had been released theatrically in 1970 and 1979 and was scheduled again for a theater release in 1986. But now it was also up for release as a home video.  Again came the questions: “Could releasing the animated classics on video undermine their uniqueness by making them too widely available in viewers’ homes?” and, “Might such a move cheapen Disney’s image and undermine the brand?”

In 1986, Disney released the VHS edition of 'Sleeping Beauty' (1959).
In 1986, Disney released the VHS edition of 'Sleeping Beauty' (1959).

Doing The Math

     During the internal discussions, estimated revenues were offered for movie box-office returns vs. home video-sales. Releasing Sleeping Beauty four more times for theater-only showings over the next 28 years — i.e., once every seven years — would generate a total box office of $125 million.  But a single home-video release of Sleeping Beauty in the near term would generate sales of at least $100 million.  That quicker return, while a lower number, proved the more persuasive strategy since inflation would ravage the longer-term, theater-only box office returns. “The net present value of earning $125 million from Sleeping Beauty over the next twenty-eight years in theaters is less than $25 million,” concluded one of Disney’s analysts at the time.  “It makes a lot more economic sense to earn $100 million from home video during the next six months.”  And the money Disney earned from its video sales in the near term could be invested on other projects to produce further value for the company.  The video sales strategy was the clear winner, and Disney began to push harder on this front with the Sleeping Beauty release.

The 1988 VHS of this 1950 Disney classic generated nearly 100 million in home video sales.
The 1988 VHS of this 1950 Disney classic generated nearly 100 million in home video sales.
     In the fall of 1986, Disney put up an unprecedented $7 million marketing campaign for the Sleeping Beauty video, priced at $29.95, using the theme “Bring Disney Home for Good” as part of its sales pitch. The campaign helped sell 1.3 million copies of the cassette, doubling the performance of Pinocchio and making Sleeping Beauty one of the largest-selling videos at the time.  “The initial fear of diluting the value of our classics in future theatrical release began to pale beside the enormous profits we could earn immediately through home-video sales,” later explained Disney CEO Michael Eisner.  “Nor did it cheapen Disney’s image in the marketplace.  The best possible impact on our brand turned out to be having our classic films in people’s homes, where they were watched over and over.”


Cinderella Story

     In 1988, the next Disney classic to come up for video release was the 1950 hit Cinderella. During the previous year in 1987, over the Christmas holidays, Cinderella had its latest scheduled movie theater release and had earned a respectable $34 million. But by this time Disney was also developing an improved strategy for marketing its home videos. It was now going beyond just the video stores. Disney began to link up with big mass-merchant retailers who had not previously sold home videos.In the late 1980s, Disney began to link up with big mass-merchant retailers like Target and Wal-Mart who had not previously sold home videos.  Their first partner was Target but they soon joined with other big stores, including Caldor and Wal-Mart.  By mid-year 1988, sales of the Cinderella video hit nearly 6 million copies, generating revenues of about $100 million, or nearly three times its previous years’ box office.

     Disney further refined its video marketing network in 1989, eliminating middlemen and taking over distribution. Overhead costs came down, joint marketing campaigns were launched with large retailers, and computer-based accounting kept track of it all. The Jungle Book — a 1967 Disney film based on the Rudyard Kipling story, and the last film that Walt Disney himself had worked on before his death — was released on home video in 1991. It sold almost 9 million copies.  Next up was 101 Dalmatians, a 1961 Disney film. Released on VHS for home vide sale in 1992, it sold more than 14 million copies.

'Snow White'-- 1994 VHS.
'Snow White'-- 1994 VHS.

Snow White’s 50 Million 

     But even in the early 1990s there was still a reservoir of the old protective Disney at work, especially when it came to the classics Snow White and Fantasia, which Walt Disney himself had produced.  Special care and restoration were taken with each of these films. The age of Fantasia left its color lacking, but with computerized technology, perfect color was restored, making the home video version better than the original.  In its first release for the home market in 1991, Fantasia sold nearly 15 million copies. Snow White, Walt Disney’s first classic animated film released originally in 1937, was considered for home video release in the early 1990s.  In this case, however, some external forces helped expedite the decision, as in Italy, the film was soon to move into the public domain, which meant it would be fair game for pirates and widespread copying. Snow White was released on VHS in 1994, and would break all records for Disney’s animated classics, selling nearly 50 million copies worldwide. The enormous market Disney discovered in selling older films, under- scored the “huge potential upside” in stepping up production of new ones.
                    – Michael Eisner
It was the last of the early Disney animated films released for home video. Disney was also able to extend the copyright for Snow White.

     The success of Disney’s animated classics in the home video market, and the apparent good prospects for feature animation in the movie market generally, helped to bolster Disney’s resolve in the late 1980s to make more animated films.Michael Eisner put it this way: “The enormous [home] video market for our animated films prompted a second epiphany, namely, the huge potential upside to be realized in stepping up production of new animated films.” In the 1970s and early 1980s, the film-making process at Disney had become slow, turning out unremarkable products. And the films produced no longer seemed to have that Walt Disney quality. But after Michael Eisner arrived as CEO in the mid-1980s, things began to change.

CD cover, 'Roger Rabbit' soundtrack, 2002.
CD cover, 'Roger Rabbit' soundtrack, 2002.


Enter Speilberg    

     In June 1988, Disney released Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a film that mixed live action with traditional animation — that is, “toon” characters played alongside real actors, marking a turn in the making of U.S. animated films.  Disney teamed up with Stephen Speilberg’s Amblin Entertainment to make Roger Rabbit, which cost $70 million to produce, one of the most expensive films at the time.  But the film earned over $150 million during its original U.S. theatrical release and more than twice that worldwide.  Another film that year, Oliver & Co., loosely based on Oliver Twist, was also produced as a new animated feature and as a musical, reviving that format.  It was released in late November 1988 and had an initial U.S. box office of more than $50 million, reaching nearly $75 million after a later second release.  “In the aftermath of Oliver and Roger Rabbit,” says Michael Eisner, “we set a goal of producing one [animated film] every twelve to eighteen months.”


Animated Economics


Film/Date  Global Gross 
Who Framed Roger Rabbit
Oliver & Co.
The Little Mermaid
Rescuers Down Under
Beauty & The Beast
The Lion King
Hunchback of Notre Dame

A Very Good Decade

And Disney kept to that schedule over the next decade, producing a string of successful films, many of which were major hits: The Little Mermaid (1989), The Rescuers Down Under (1990), Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), The Lion King (1994), Pocahontas (1995), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), Hercules (1997), Mulan (1998), and Tarzan (1999). 

In the process, Disney touched off something of renaissance in animated film-making through the 1990s, taken to new levels with computer-based production techniques, as well as new marketing joint ventures and merchandising tie-ins.

Disney’s feature animation depart- ment during that time underwent a significant expansion, rising from about 300 artists in 1988 to 2,400 by 1999.  Also by this time, many of the Disney classics that had been released in earlier VHS format were now being released as DVDs and a new round of sales.

     Today, of course, Disney’s animated film business is huge, both at the box office and in DVD sales. Many of its animated films have become the equivalent of stand-alone busi- nesses, each with related merchandising, music sales, and in the case of the Lion King, a Broadway production. 

In 2006, Disney’s power in animated film making was made even more awesome with the $7.4 billion acquisition of Pixar, the computer-based film production company responsible for such animated blockbusters as Toy Story (1995, $354 million), Finding Nemo (2003, $864 million), and Cars (2006, $460 million).  Yet in the brief space of about 15 years, dating from the mid-1980s, the entire business of animated film making and marketing was transformed, with Disney playing an important role in that process, in part, by taking a new look at its old assets.

See also at this website “Disney Dollars,” a story about Disney’s business during the Great Depression of the 1930s and the rising importance of entertainment in the U.S. economy. Additional stories related to Film & Hollywood topics can also be found at that category page. Thanks for visiting – and please consider supporting this website. Thank you. – Jack Doyle


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Date Posted:  29 March 2008
Last Update:  1 September 2014
Comments to:  

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “Disney’s Movie Vault, 1984-1999,”
PopHistoryDig.com, March 29, 2008.



Sources, Links & Additional Information

Michael Eisner, Work in Progress, New York: Random House, 1998, pp. 186-191.

Jerry Beck, The Animated Movie Guide, Chicago: Reader Press, 2005.

“The Walt Disney Co.,”Wikipedia.orgSee also profiles on individual Disney movies.