a media industry resource

Disney group

This profile deals with the Disney conglomerate.

It covers -

  • introduction
  • the group
  • ABC
  • holdings
  • studies


Disney has strongly promoted its image as an extension of the animation studio founded by "kindly Uncle Walt". Behind the trademark mouse ears lies a global empire that - like Viacom , AOL Time Warner and Vivendi - encompasses film production and distribution, broadcast and cable television, theme parks, merchandising, shipping, multimedia, books, newspapers, magazines and the odd oil well.

A chronology of the group is here

The group

Disney began as a small animation studio and was financially shaky until the success of Disneyland, the prototype theme park (it had been dependent on bailouts from Howard Hughes and ABC).

After a messy diversification effort it survived successive corporate raiders during the 1970s and under the leadership of Michael Eisner in turn gobbled up other media groups (notably the Capital Cities-ABC broadcasting chain), becoming a major film/video financier and distributor, building additional parks, aggressively merchandising its brands and expanding into ventures such as cruise lines.

Late 1990s nostalgia, particularly among cultural studies academics, has mythologised the pre-Eisner group as elevating art or creativity over vulgar money-grubbing. (An example of laments about how "the Disney Empire has shrunk from heroic morality tale to amusement park to mere market share" is here.)

A closer examination suggests that Disney has always been closely concerned with money and growth; the Walt and Roy regime was at best marked by paternalism and production quotas, at worst by Ford-style surveillance, blacklists and strikebreaking. We leave our readers to make their own judgements about the enduring cultural value of Fantasia, Snow White or Annette Funicello.


The group now includes the American Broadcasting Company (ABC), discussed in more detail in a separate profile.

In February 2006 Disney announced an agreement to merge its ABC Radio stations with Citadel in a deal that Disney valued at US$2.7 billion. Disney said it would spin off ABC's 22 radio stations and its ABC Radio Networks programming arm into a separate entity, which would then be merged with Citadel to make the transaction tax-free to Disney shareholders.

The expectation was that Disney shareholders will own 52% of the new company once the deal is completed, with Disney keeping up to US$1.65 billion in cash. The new company, to be called Citadel Communications, will own 177 FM radio stations and 66 AM stations.


The following page provides an indication of Disney holdings, which encompass -

  • US television and radio broadcasting
  • US and international satellite and cable television
  • film/television production and distribution
  • book publishing
  • magazines and newspapers
  • resources
  • retail
  • multimedia
  • record labels and music publishing
  • theatrical production
  • sports franchises
  • theme parks and resorts
  • property development
  • cruises

Disney's radio group includes 72 stations, with 44 in the top 25 US markets.


Contrasting studies of Disney and ABC are provided in Ron Grover's The Disney Touch: Disney, ABC & the Quest for the World's Greatest Media Empire (New York: Irwin 1996) - for us as sweet and almost as indigestible as the fast food at a theme park near you - the more visceral Disneywar (New York: Simon & Schuster 2005) by James Stewart on recent corporate infighting and the zany Team Rodent: How Disney Devours The World (New York: Ballantine 1998) by wacko thriller writer Carl Hiaasen. Deconstructing Disney (London: Pluto Press 2000) by Eleanor Byrne & Martin McQuillan is insightful and recommended.

Janet Wasko's Understanding Disney: The Manufacture of Fantasy (London: Polity 2001) offers an intelligent analysis from the left. In contrast Disney: The First 100 Years (New York: Hyperion 1999) edited by Dave Smith may strike some readers as unabashed corporate propaganda.

John Taylor's Storming the Magic Kingdom: Wall Street, The Raiders & the Battle for Disney (New York: Knopf 1987) retains its relevance as Disney under Michael Eisner gropes for a strategy to handle the web, amalgamating units and dealing with the failure of Disney's online retail strategy.

Eisner's Work in Progress (New York: Random 1998) memoir is altogether too suave and self-satisfied - there are shark's teeth behind the impeccably tailored suit but in his book you rarely see them (they're reserved for employees and rivals like Jeffrey Katzenberg). Prince of the Kingdom: Michael Eisner & the Re-making of Disney (New York: Wiley 1991) by Joe Flower is a useful corrective.

The Keys To The Kingdom: How Michael Eisner Lost His Grip (New York: Morrow 2000) by Kim Masters is another expose: lots of detail about assassination among the corporate aspidistras, few insights into how Disney and the other entertainment behemoths can tame the Web.

Bob Thomas' Building a Company: Roy O Disney & the Creation of an Entertainment Empire (New York: Hyperion 1998), like his Walt Disney: An American Original (New York: Simon & Schuster 1976) is indulgent. We suggest instead Disney Discourse: Producing the Magic Kingdom (New York: Routledge 1994) edited by Eric Smoodin, in particular for Douglas Gomery's lucid 'Disney's Business History: A Re-interpretation'. It is complemented by Tom Sito's Drawing the Line: The Untold Story of the Animation Unions from Bosko to Bart Simpson (Lexington: Uni Press of Kentucky 2007). The Mouse That Roared: Disney & The End of Innocence (Tottowa: Rowman & Littlefield 1999) by Henry Giroux, Babes in Tomorrowland: Walt Disney and the Making of the American Child, 1930-1960 (Durham: Duke Uni Press 2005) by Nicholas Sammond are critiques from the left, less perceptive than Wasko. The latter edited Dazzled by Disney? The Global Disney Audiences Project (New York: Continuum 2001).

The Celebration Chronicles: Life, Liberty & the Pursuit of Property Values in Disney's New Town (New York: Ballantine 1999) by Andrew Ross is a respectful but ultimately critical of Disney's 'new urbanism' in the town of Celebration. Stalinist building codes, dress rules, mandatory happiness and mellow mood music from speakers hidden among the o-so-carefully-tended foliage at the foot of the palm trees can't disguise that people - like information - just wanna be free.

Ross is more nuanced than the upbeat Celebration, USA: Living In Disney's Brave New Town (New York: Holt 2000) by Douglas Frantz & Catherine Collins. Stephen Fjellman's Vinyl Leaves: Walt Disney World & America (Boulder: Westview 1992) is an intelligent study of the theme parks. Married to the Mouse: Walt Disney World and Orlando (New Haven: Yale Uni Press 2001) by Richard Foglesong considers the "economic-development marriage" between Orlando and Disney. Designing Disney's Theme Parks: The Architecture of Reassurance (Paris: Flammarion 1997) edited by Karal Ann Marling has less substance and more psychobabble. It is complemented by
Douglas Brode's From Walt to Woodstock: How Disney Created the
Counterculture (Austin: Uni of Texas Press 2004) and Multiculturalism & the Mouse: Race and Sex in Disney Entertainment (Austin: Uni of Texas Press 2006)

Ken Auletta's Three Blind Mice: How The Television Networks Lost Their Way (New York: Random House 1991) gives a picture of 'old media in crisis' as the businesses and consumers first started to head onto the information highway. It is deeper and more original than the disappointing collection of profiles in his The Highwaymen - Warriors of the Information Superhighway (New York: Random House 1997) or Michael Wolff's Autumn of the Moguls (New York: HarperCollins 2003). For the ABC network see the separate profile elsewhere on this site

For the founding father consult Marc Eliot's Walt Disney: Hollywood's Dark Prince (New York: HarperCollins 1993) and Steven Watts' The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney & the American Way of Life (Boston, Houghton Mifflin 1997) and Michael Barrier's
The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney (Berkeley: Uni of California Press 2007). Eliot is overly psychological but for us more persuasive than Leonard Mosley's Disney's World: A Biography (New York: Stein & Day 1985) or Alan's Bryman Disney & His Worlds (New York: Routledge 1995).

Richard Schickel's The Disney Version: The Life, Times, Art & Commerce of Walt Disney (Chicago: Dee 1997) is sweeter than Eliot, albeit peppered with observations that Disney is "a kind of rallying point for the subliterates of our society". Schickel's criticisms are offset by Neal Gabler's Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination (New York: Knopf 2006). Inside the Mouse: The Project on Disney (London: Duke Uni Press 1995) edited by Stanley Fish & Fredric Jameson is one of the funnier books we read in 2001, although acolytes of those cultural critics will no doubt treat it as a masterpiece of high seriousness.

Disney's aggressive protection of its intellectual property continues to attract attention. One example is Bob Levin's The Pirates and the Mouse: Disney's War Against the Underground (Seattle: Fantagraphics 2003), which considers the 1971-79 Walt Disney Productions v The Air Pirates litigation, in which US Supreme Court Justice Kennedy tartly described the Air Pirates in passing as

profiteers who did no more than ... place the characters from a familiar work in novel or eccentric poses.