No-one can deny that Disney has long meant more than just animated films. Heck, even Walt was about much more than what he is most famous for. Starting in the 1980s though, was a sizeable and dramatic shift towards markets and products that would lead the company far from its theatrical, and animation, roots. Today, Disney is a true multi-national conglomerate with a presence in just about every corner of the media landscape.
Exactly How Is Disney a TV Company?
It’s easy to forget just how small the actual ‘studio’ part of the enterprise is, but Derek Thompson at The Atlantic has this nice pie chart to illustrate things for us:
At just over 7% of the total, the studio division is, well, insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Of course that’s the entire studio sector: Disney itself plus Pixar plus Marvel plus Lucasfilm. All told, Disney could hack off its studios entirely and still do all right for itself.* As Thompson puts it:
…at its core, the Disney company draws its largest and most dependable source of income from subscriptions fees that power its cable networks … even though casual newspaper readers could be forgiven for thinking the company lives and dies by the opening weekend of its summer blockbusters.
And that’s the brilliant thing about Disney. The movie business is a rotten thing. American audiences don’t go the movies every week, so they have to be lured with egregiously expensive marketing campaigns for a handful of tentpole movies that, if they blow up, can destroy quarterly earnings for the film division and take down careers. The TV business is somewhat the opposite. The subscription fee model (wherein a sliver of your cable bill goes straight to the networks’ pockets) guarantees that cable networks get paid with or without a “hit.”
Long story short, where Disney makes its money, despite pleas to the contrary, is nowhere near its feature films. Do they [have to] make money? Sure they do, but to use some business-speak, the corporation’s ‘core competency‘ has next to nothing to do with features, let alone animated ones.
The Bottom Line
Sometimes tough love is what’s best, and in this case, I have to say that anyone who either a.) believes that Disney still has a true passion for feature animation or b.) has any serious reason for bringing back traditional, hand-drawn animation is deluding themselves. The company lives (and dies) by ESPN these days, and you can bet they will continue to sideline animation as long as that is the case.
*Of course features still count; they are after all the engine of many different parts of the empire (particularly merchandise) but the TV division is even more so. If Disney features disappeared tomorrow, there effect would be only temporary. Any argument that they are quote/unquote ‘essential’ is inaccurate at best.