Disneyland

The first incarnation of the Walt Disney anthology television series, commonly called The Wonderful World of Disney, premiered on ABC on Wednesday night, October 27th, 1954 under the name Disneyland.  The same basic show has since appeared on several networks under a variety of titles. 

Originally hosted by Walt Disney himself, the series presented animated cartoons and other material (some original, some pre-existing) from the studio library.  The show even featured one-hour edits of such then-recent Disney films as Alice in Wonderland, and in other cases, telecasts of complete Disney films split into two or more one-hour episodes.  Other studios feared television would cut into their revenue streams.  However, Disney embraced television wholeheartedly, and Disneyland became the first successful TV production created by a movie studio.  After its success, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros. produced their own anthology series to promote their respective studios, but none of them lasted very long.

The show spawned the Davy Crockett craze of 1955 with the three-episode series (not shown in consecutive weeks) about the historical American frontiersman, starring Fess Parker in the title role.  Millions of dollars of merchandise were sold relating to the title character, and the theme song, “The Ballad of Davy Crockett”, was a hit record that year.  Three historically-based hour-long shows aired in late 1954/early 1955, and were followed up by two dramatized installments the following year.  The TV episodes were edited into two theatrical films later on.

On July 17th, 1955, the opening of Disneyland was covered on a live television special, Dateline: Disneyland, which is not technically considered to be part of the series.  It was hosted by Walt along with Bob Cummings, Art Linkletter, Ronald Reagan, and featured various other guests.

In the fall of 1958, the series was re-titled Walt Disney Presents and moved to Friday nights, but by 1960, it switched to Sunday nights.  The series moved to NBC in September 1961 to take advantage of that network’s ability to broadcast in color.  In addition, Walt Disney’s relationship with ABC had soured as the network resisted selling its stake in the theme park before doing so in 1960.  In a display of foresight, Disney had filmed many of the earlier shows in color, so they were able to be repeated on NBC.  To emphasize the new color feature, the series was re-dubbed Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color and retained that moniker until 1969.  The first NBC episode even dealt with the principles of color, as explained by a new character named Ludwig Von Drake (voiced by Paul Frees), a bumbling professor and uncle of Donald Duck.  Von Drake was the first Disney character created specifically for television.  Walt Disney died on December 15th, 1966.  While the broadcast three days after his death had a memorial tribute from NBC news anchor Chet Huntley and film & TV star Dick Van Dyke, the intros Walt already filmed before his death continued to air for the rest of the season.  After that, the studio decided that Walt’s persona as host was such a key part of the show’s appeal to viewers that the host segment was dropped.  The series, retitled The Wonderful World of Disney in September 1969, continued to get solid ratings, often in the Top 20, until the mid-1970s.

The show’s continued ratings success in the post-Walt era came to an end in the 1975–1976 season.  At this time, Walt Disney Productions was facing a decline in fortunes due to falling box-office revenues, while NBC as a whole was slipping in the ratings as well.  The show became increasingly dependent on airings of live-action theatrical features (nothing from the Disney animated features canon aired except Alice in Wonderland and Dumbo), cartoon compilations, and reruns of older episodes, but in an era where cable TV was in its infancy and VCRs did not exist, this was the only way to see Disney material that was not re-released to theaters.  Additionally, in 1975, when CBS regained the broadcast rights to The Wizard of Oz from NBC, it scheduled it opposite Disney for the first few years.  At that time, the annual broadcast of that film was a highly-rated annual event which largely attracted the same family audience as this series.  From 1968 to 1975, when NBC owned the rights to Oz, (which it had bought in 1967) it usually pre-empted Disney to show it. However, the show’s stiffest weekly competition came from CBS’s news magazine 60 Minutes.

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