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Alex Stroup and Kevin Yee
November 9, 2000

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BILL COTTER assembles a catalog of Disney's complete television output

Reviewed:
The Wonderful World of Disney Television: A Complete History
Bill Cotter
New York: Hyperion, 1997

 

ALEX KEVIN
  Well, Alex, I have to offer my apologies for suggesting this book. I was working off memory when I recommended we do this one next, and my (apparently faulty) memory had told me that it was a good book. Sadly, it's mostly a reference book. I was underwhelmed in a lot of ways.
Yes, it is definitely a reference book. But the librarian in me likes that. I've had to force myself to view this book both as to its value for the individual fan and on its value as a reference resource (say in a library).  
  I think it disappoints on all levels, actually. Yes, the listings appear complete - and that is a major undertaking. If you ever need to look up a brief synopsis of an episode of virtually anything produced by Disney for TV, then it's to be found here. But it's not a compelling read for any other reason. Did you, as a librarian, find the reference listings and categorizations satisfactory?
As far as I can tell it is very complete. I didn't do a solid content analysis as I would have done back in school, but I did not find an example of anything listed at IMDB that was not listed in the book, but there are several listings in the book that are not in IMDB.

The problem with the book is not coverage, but rather that there are very few [technical librarian term coming] too few access points. If you don't know the name of the show you are interested in you are in trouble.

 
  It’s kind of like a website that has complete listings but no search function!
True. There is not even a global list of titles to be had. If you don't know that "Donald Ducks 50th Birthday" was a special and not an episode of the anthology series you aren't going to find it easily. To be useful as a reference tool, a companion volume of indexes (all kinds) is needed.  
  I never even considered that, but you're right. I think it didn't occur to me partly because I wanted to approach this book as a fan and learn all I could from reading it through. I wanted an introduction and thorough history of the development of Disney TV, but that's not what's offered. What we get instead are brief histories divided roughly by genre - resulting in frequent non-chronological discussions - and then mind-numbing lists of episodes.

This is not a book to read straight through. I doubt I'll pick it up again unless I'm looking for something specific.

(And then you probably won't be able to find the specific entry with ease). Of course this book isn't intended as an in depth behind- the- scenes look at Disney television but each chapter does have an introductory essay, and while nothing groundbreaking the first few do provide a good grounding in the atmosphere in which Disney was entering TV.

The problem though is that once Bill Cotter has talked about The Mickey Mouse Club, Zorro, and the Anthology series he doesn't seem at all interested anymore.

 
  Actually, the essay introducing the anthology series, which kicks off chapter three, is in fact good, I'd say. I quite liked the way it set the stage, and traced the history of the division's development. But the other essays track genres, and this simply doesn't work for me. I had wanted chronological development. This essay is the only one that came close.
There are two essays that I want to see but weren't there. The final chapter lists all the prime time regular series done by Touchstone. The brief essay for this chapter essentially says "and there wasn't much TV presence for Disney until 1986, here are the shows" Why was Disney (through Touchstone) suddenly emphasizing TV production again? I can make good guesses, but I shouldn't have to.  
  Good point, he doesn't address that. I think I'm beginning to buy into your interpretation of the book: after the first few chapters, he loses interest. I still believe he's strongly focused on providing absolutely thorough listings for the episodes, though. There are no less than 150 pages in small (8-point) font that list the production credits! This strikes me as a little... excessive - or should I say obsessive? I've said it once, and here it is again: mind-numbing.
On losing interest: my theory is that Cotter's three favorite shows when he was a kid were the Mickey Mouse Club, Zorro, and The Wonderful World of Disney. Once he got those out of the way the rest was just a matter of being complete.

As for the production details that take up most of the book, considering there is no good means for accessing this information, good indexes for the main part should have taken priority.

 
  I had wanted full alphabetization! What's wrong with simply listing each show by name? Why insist on a chapter breakdown by genre?

At any rate, I do have a couple of positive things to say, though they be minor. I did enjoy hearing about the Mickey Mouse Club “gong gag,” whereby something different happens to Donald in each episode. It struck me that this must be what inspired the similar “couch gag” for the Simpsons. I wish the book contained more such nuggets!

And the fact that the final line of the Animaniacs theme song had several versions. I'm going to go to a laundry list really quick and just list the things I think this book needs to be useful. Genre listings are fine as long as there is a global title index. Use a standard format for listing the episodes of a series (some are alphabetical, some are by season, some are by episode number)

Provide ratings information (per episode). Great tool for seeing the waning fortunes of a show. Episode counts (for some reason provided for the cartoons series, but nothing else). Quality of information provided is very high, ease of access is very low. The quality of chapter introductions varies drastically (five pages on Zorro, none on Home Improvement).
 
  I'm glad you're here - I would not have thought of these things, or how to improve them. I'm stuck appreciating - or in this case condemning - the books on the basis of their literary merit, which you can do as well as I can. In any event, I have one more positive thing I noticed: unsold pilots were included in the listings. I enjoyed seeing them there, but would have appreciated some sort of commentary about them even more.

Speaking of non-glossed information, I wanted to mention that this book includes two sections of photos in the middle, which I found largely uninspired. Not only were they black-and-white and minimally labeled, but they tended to be boring and often recognizable images rather than something new. I wanted to see more previously unknown pictures of Walt in his office (or office set), but sadly there were few to be had.

I have to agree with that. With so much talk in the book about production issues, candid shots from sets would be good. But then he seems to have worked pretty much exclusively out of the Disney Archive and may have had permissions troubles. For the individual fan I can only mildly recommend this book, there is nothing overtly wrong with the contents and a couple of the essays are good. More for the completist collection.

For the librarian / reference type I would have to recommend against this book completely, unless an index volume were produced at some point. The biggest thing I learned form this book came from scanning pages ii and iii. This is a list of 51 prime time TV series that Disney has produced in the last 13 years that actually made it on the air. Looking at this list I couldn't help but realize that Disney does not have an enviable track record of producing quality television.

 

NEXT: Vinyl Leaves

AUTHOR'S COMMENTS

Do you remember watching Walt Disney on Sunday nights?

A major part of my childhood was watching Disney television shows - The Mickey Mouse Club, Davy Crockett, Zorro and more. Years later this led to my working for Disney, and now, a book that describes every episode of every Disney series. It begins back in 1944 when Walt was first thinking about getting into television, and includes today's hits like "Home Improvement" and "Ellen". The 10+ years of research included total access to The Disney Archives and watching more than 4,000 hours of television. It was a true labor of love, and a great chance to relive my childhood. Now, with "The Wonderful World of Disney" back on Sunday night, the tradition started by Walt continues.

- October 14, 1997 (from the Amazon site)

An interview with Bill Cotter is also available on the Amazon site via THIS LINK

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