This spring marked the 30th anniversary of The Disney Channel (April 18, 1983), not the 'tween-filled programming for pre-teenagers that dominates the cable channel today at all hours, but the real attempt to bring families together in front of the television set featuring classic and newly created Disney content and with the word "The" capitalized with the rest of the title.
"The Disney Channel. It's everything you've ever imagined… and more!" was the catchphrase to attract initial subscribers.
Columnist Vernon Scott on the opening day in his column for trade magazine The Hollywood Reporter, wrote, "From 7 a.m to 11 p.m. viewers can overdose on PG and G-rated shows. The cost? Less than $10 a month, according to a Disney spokesman."
The channel began as a premium channel and transitioned to basic cable in 1997 (although some markets had begun that transition as early as 1994).
The channel also provided a monthly program guide/magazine called The Disney Channel Magazine to its subscribers that ceased once the Disney Channel became widely available. The magazine was described in 1983 as "the cut-out, fill-in, play-a-long adventure all its own! A big part of our approach to interactive programming, a unique Disney concept that makes it the do-it-together channel, a place for children and adults to share together!"
In April 1984, programming was expanded from 16 hours a day to 18 hours a day. By December 1986, the channel was broadcasting 24 hours a day.
The first show that aired was the hour-long "Good Morning, Mickey!" with a mixture of classic Disney-animated short cartoons that had not been seen for years.
The concept was simple. There would be programming for younger children in the morning and afternoon. Primetime was reserved for families, and later at night, it was focused on adults.
The Walt Disney Company described the overall philosophy of The Disney Channel in early March 1983:
"The philosophy of quality family entertainment is reinforced with programs that encourage viewer participation and interaction. Passive television viewing will be eliminated as viewers are invited to answer quiz questions, participate in contests, exercise with Mickey Mouse… all in their own living rooms! Overall, our subscribers are assured of programs consistent with the king of entertainment that has been associated with the name Disney."
Back in April 1983 with the official launch of the Disney Channel, Peggy Christianson, who was Vice President of Program Development for the channel, said, "We really want adults and children to sit down and watch the Disney Channel together. Walt Disney never aimed at children alone. He always aimed at entertaining a family audience with a quality product and positive values that would appeal to people of all ages."
The plan was to balance the programming with one-third existing Disney material, one-third original programming, and one-third material that had been acquired from outside sources but was in "keeping with the Disney identity and values."
As the Disney Channel launched, Christianson announced the original shows that were planned for the new cable system in its first year.
Some shows never made it. Some appeared very briefly. Others may be old favorites to some of those people reading today's column.
Welcome To Pooh Corner
"The characters will be played by live actors wearing flexible body suits to give them a full range of movement. And the facial expressions of the characters will be electronically controlled by the actors inside the suits, who will have touch pads in their hands that will allow them to raise their eyebrows, blink their eyes, wiggle their noses and smile. The sound track will be fed through a voice actuator so that the jaw and lip movement are synchronized with the sound electronically," stated Christianson.
The show was to be produced by Frank Brandt with original songs by the Sherman Brothers in this show for preschoolers of the adventures of Winnie the Pooh and his friends in the Hundred Acre Woods. In advertisements, it was heralded as Disney's first step in "Puppetronics."
You And Me, Kid
"The idea of the show is to give a parent the opportunity to sit down with his/her child in front of the television set and spend time together that is quality time. We're literally going to give the parents and the children activities that they can do together while they watch the program.
"There will be dramatic play, exercises, dance and music. But all of these activities will allow the parent and the child to participate as a pair. They won't just be sitting beside each other, but they will be actually holding on to each other, using each other as counterweights in exercises or playing games together. Many parents today really don't know how to play with their kids. It's something that has gotten lost. Television has become the baby sitter. This show will be pure activity and fun," said Christianson.
"The show will provide some real background information about the cartoons, too, which will appeal to trivia buffs. It's a way of presenting the cartoons in a fresh format that adults can enjoy, even if they've seen the cartoons before," claimed Christianson.
Well, host George Plimpton who was spoofing the professorial tone of the popular Masterpiece Theater show on PBS didn't get around to sharing that background information in this half-hour show and unfortunately the joke wore thin fairly quickly, which probably helped spawn Mouse Tracks and Quack Attack that featured more cartoons and no faux commentary.
This was to be a daily one-hour magazine show based on a variety of human interest topics and would originate from the one year old EPCOT Center at Walt Disney World. Ron Miziker who was Vice President of Programming for the Disney Channel claimed that "EPCOT Center is the world's most exciting backlot. Where else could you find entertainment based on a presentation of current issues such as energy and environment as well as a 'stage' which has scenes and symbols from nine foreign countries?"
Epcot's America! America!
Another show to emanate from EPCOT Center. The host is actor Lloyd Bridges that will roam the country exploring the "spirit of change, timely topics and interviews." The first show covered the creation of the American Adventure Pavilion at Epcot Center.
"It will focus on the heritage and thoughts and feelings of Americans. It will include segments from Future Choice Theater at EPCOT Center, where members of the audience are given a chance to vote on questions that affect us all. The show will also go out to various locations around America, introduce us to some fascinating Americans, and reveal some aspects of our heritage that are vanishing," gushed Christianson.
Wish Upon A Star
Children between the ages of 7 to 12 will see their wishes come true during this weekly half-hour program. Children would write in telling about their wishes and each week four wishes would be selected to be fulfilled on the show.
"This will be a logistically complex show," understated Christianson, "In many cases, it will mean meeting the children at their homes and flying all over the country to locations where the wishes are to be fulfilled. Children are sending in their wishes now, and some of them are wonderfully imaginative. Most of them are very positive upbeat wishes. Some of them are fairly big, dramatic wishes, and others are rather simple, but on the show, they'll be fulfilled in a way that's fun and visually exciting. This show will have a lot of heart."
A life-sized three-dimensional game board is the framework for the show, which is aimed at stimulating children's observation and retention skills. The competition itself is derived from questions about Disney film clips shown on the program. Successfully answering those questions will advance participants across the colorful game board and accumulate the points necessary to win. For kids 7–12.
"This will be a very visual show," claimed Christianson, "The contraption itself is very elaborate with lots of bells and whistles. There's a physical element to the game as well. For example, children might be required to bicycle to one station and row to the next to advance on the board."
New! Animal World
A daily half-hour show hosted and produced by Bill Burrud to introduce the audience to intriguing animals like the snow monkey of Japan, or walking catfish, or the great spotted cats. Each show also will feature a quiz (which was to tie in with a special section in the Disney Channel magazine).
Disney Studio Showcase
An hour-long weekly show, which would be a showcase of different things. This is the show that had a episode of animation historian John Culhane going behind the scenes at the Disney Studio and meeting a very young Tim Burton working on "Vincent", discovering special effects for "Baby" and seeing Mike Giamo and Darryl Van Citters working on the first version of Roger Rabbit.
"The showcase will be completely different from one week to the next. One week it might visit the Ringling Brothers College of Clowns and the next week it might present the best commercials seen at Cannes. It really is intended to allow a lot of room for creative experimentation," emphasized Christianson.
The Scheme Of Things
"This will be a highly technical show. It is intended to help people relate to science and see it in a meaningful context in their own lives. It will be a show that the whole family will be able to enjoy together," stated Christianson. The show was to be hosted by James McArthur.
This is the show that I mentioned in a previous article and still no one came forward with any new information about this show that featured actor Jack Kruschen as Dreamfinder.
The show was aimed at children from ages 6 to 12 and was to focus on problem-solving, imagination and creativity. It was advertized as "involving the Realm of Imagination to gain the information and insight necessary to tackle problems and discover new vistas."
"We hope this show will help children become more aware of their own creative resources. The main characters are Dreamfinder and Figment, a little dragon, who travel in the dream machine at Epcot Center to explore the creative process. The show will have elaborate sets and a variety of characters and story lines to convey to children some of the elements involved in creativity, imagination and problem-solving in the largest sense," said Christianson.
This show was designed to travel to college campuses all over the country to showcase the young talent in the various performing arts departments. The show would provide a look at some of the stars of tomorrow as well as offering a view of the various colleges visited.
Based on the then popular record album of the same name, "This will be an exercise show with lots of Disney music. It will have Mickey Mouse and Goofy leading exercises with children in the Mickey Mouse Health Club setting and will encourage the audience at home to join in," said Christianson. The host was Kellyn Plasschaert.
An interactive show that provides clues that will enable participants on the screen and those viewing at home an opportunity to solve various complex and intriguing cases.
This show was intended to give the viewing audience a behind-the-scenes look at the animation process. It was to include interviews with well-known Disney animators, show how voice tracks are made, and provide the opportunity for looking at never-before-seen pencil tests of favorite Disney films as well as showing viewers how they can do simple animation themselves. "We know that we have a built-in audience for this show," stated Christianson, "One thing kids always ask us is 'Teach me to draw Mickey'."
Five Mile Creek
An original adventure series based on the history of Americans who settled in Australia in the 1870s. "The series portrays the struggle of both the Americans and the Australians in that period. It shows the contrast between the American and the Australian approach to a challenging environment," stated Christianson.
Good Morning, Mickey!
An hour of Disney cartoons "many never seen before on television" from the Disney Vaults.
Peggy Christianson was certainly enthusiastic about the launch of the Disney Channel in April 1983 and was already looking forward to even more original programming: "The majority of the ideas for the present shows have been generated internally, and we have sought outside producers to do the actual production. Disney owns the shows including all the rights.
"We are a little different from most of the other services in this respect. But this is not an absolute rule. I think we'll probably be more receptive to ideas from the outside now. We're always willing to look at good concepts that have the values we know our audience is looking for. We are going to provide viewers with a real alternative."
Within the first 90 days, the Disney Channel was an unqualified success. The Channel achieved its projected 100,000 subscribers less than two weeks after launch, six weeks earlier than the most liberal projections.
By July 1983, there were 280,000 subscribers in 48 states, making it the fastest-growing pay-TV service ever.
An independent study revealed that over 75 percent of the viewers rated the channel "excellent" or "very good" and 20 percent of the viewers had no children under the age of 13. The average viewing by the entire household was 20.7 hours per week.
President Ronald Reagan offered words of praise in a May 27,1983 letter to Disney Channel President Jim Jimirro, commending the Disney Channel for upholding "the best tradition of the spirit of American pioneering" and for "creating new opportunities for millions of American cable subscribers to enjoy the informative, entertaining and wholesome family entertainment for which Walt Disney and the organization he founded is so justly famous throughout the world."
Disney announced it would spend $7.8 million for 65 episodes of the original series Coming On!, Five Mile Creek, and The Edison Twins in addition to purchasing a number of popular family oriented films, sports action documentaries, "and other unique programming."
The 20-second signoff each night in 1983 was the Mickey-headed satellite journeying through the dark blue skies of outer space and skimming over your neighborhood dropping pixie dust that formed the silhouette of Mickey's head, as the announcer in a comforting voice said, "The Disney Channel wishes you a wonderful tomorrow and remember, You always have a place to turn to… your family place… The Disney Channel. And now… good-night!"