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Disney Betting On New Series

January 09, 1986|MORGAN GENDEL | Times Staff Writer

When "The Disney Sunday Movie" premieres Feb. 2 at 7 p.m. on ABC, Walt Disney Productions believes it will show television viewers that the spirit of Walt Disney lives on.

The show is a series of one- and two-hour TV movies and the successor to the long-running family favorite "The Wonderful World of Disney."

It is also an attempt by Disney Productions, under the chairmanship of Michael Eisner--who might also serve as host of the new series--to demonstrate that the studio is on its way having a presence on network TV that it never had beyond its flagship "Wonderful World" show.

The company expects to have network commitments for at least five pilots for fall series spread over the three networks, Richard Frank, president of Walt Disney Pictures, the film and TV division of the company, said in a recent interview.

ABC sees additional series potential in some of the 23 episodes of the "Disney Sunday Movie" in production, Frank said.

Disney already is represented on prime time as the backer and distributor of the 1985-86 season's top-rated new show, NBC's "The Golden Girls," under the Touchstone Films banner it reserves for mature-themed TV and movie projects.

The studio also is developing series for Cindy Williams ("Happy Days"), Bonnie Franklin ("One Day at a Time") and Mike Farrell ("MASH"), as well as for film actresses Ellen Burstyn, Julie Walters ("Educating Rita") and Meredith Salenger, star of its recent release "The Journey of Natty Gann."

It has signed up the services of such behind-the-camera talents as Michael Crichton, a film director best known as author of the novel "The Andromeda Strain"; Richard Chapman, currently executive producer of "Simon & Simon," and Daniel Petrie Jr., who wrote the screenplay for "Beverly Hills Cop."

But it is "The Disney Sunday Movie" on which Walt Disney Pictures is focusing its TV attention. To ensure public awareness of the show before it starts going head-to-head with CBS' "60 Minutes," ABC on Wednesday turned the podium over to Eisner, Frank and Gary Barton, the senior vice president in charge of the show, for a lunchtime session on the first day of its twice-yearly press tour for the nation's TV critics.

"It is the No. 1 priority in the entire corporation," Eisner said during his speech at the Century Plaza. "We have put all of our resources, all our manpower, all our creative impetus into this show."

One thing that separates a show like this from other anthology series, Frank said earlier in the week, is the use of a host to offer some continuity for the viewer. Rod Serling filled that role on "The Twilight Zone," Alfred Hitchcock did it on his series, and Walt Disney performed that chore on the variously titled shows that bore his name until his death in 1966.

Now, it may be Eisner's turn.

"There's a lot of sentiment here for having Eisner do it," Frank said the day before the press conference. Eisner, described by the New York Times as resembling Howdy Doody, will undergo a screen test to see how he comes across on camera, Frank said.

Should Eisner decline to hire himself as host, he added, a well-known actor might be sought for the job.

"The Sunday Movie" is a fitting first show for the Eisner regime to develop for TV. Its ancestor, originally titled "Disneyland," was the first series to be produced by a major film studio for television. When "Disneyland," later changed to "Walt Disney Presents," took to the airwaves in 1954, it ended a longstanding fear of TV that prevented the film studios from acknowledging television's existence.

The show made the rounds of the networks before leaving CBS in 1983. That departure, Frank said, was the doing of the old regime.

"The company made a strategic decision back in 1982 to channel all its energies into the The Disney Channel (on cable TV)," Frank explained. "They weren't canceled by CBS; they pulled the show off and said, 'No, we aren't going to do that.' "

Disney was never a major TV force like its counterparts at Paramount ("Taxi," "Cheers," "Family Ties"); Universal ("Columbo," "Miami Vice," "Knight Rider"), or 20th Century-Fox ("MASH").

"It was a theme park company," Frank said. "It was in the business of character licensing. And it also did a certain line of business in films and television. They never were in the mainline of the business."

Eisner, Frank and Jeff Katzenberg--Frank's boss as head of a single TV and film division where those two media are jointly planned--are changing all that. The success of "The Golden Girls," which Frank credits to Witt/Thomas/Harris Productions, which developed it, nonetheless "says to everybody: We're here."

As for the new Sunday show, Frank cautiously speaks of "a slow-grow. We're not going to get everybody to turn off '60 Minutes' because Disney's back. It will only happen through word of mouth."

For those who do tune to ABC early Sunday evenings, here are some samples of what they will see:

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