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Threatened boycott just one of Disney’s 1996 headlines

ORLANDO, Fla. (BP)–For the Walt Disney Company, 1996 was a year of considerable press exposure.

Boycotts were a key theme in many Disney-related news reports, with several Christian denominations and groups urging the company to return to a more pro-family direction.
Some organizations called for an immediate boycott while others warned of the possibility if Disney refuses to correct its course.

The pressure on Disney came in a year when other companies also were boycotted, although for different reasons. A notable example was Texaco, which was targeted for a boycott by Jesse Jackson after certain company officials were alleged to have made racist comments during high-level meetings.

Another series of press reports focused on Disney’s internal struggles after the company’s president, Michael Ovitz, resigned his position after less than a year in his job.

Media observers said the departure was due to personality conflicts with Michael D. Eisner, Disney chairman. Reportedly, the two men had been friends for 20 years before working together at Disney.

According to A.M. Rosenthal, a columnist for The New York Times, Ovitz’s departure package included a $50 million cash settlement and potentially $40 million in stock options. Rosenthal said the agreement would cost both Disney stockholders and U.S. taxpayers.

“The beauty part for Disney is that the company should be able to lay off about 40 percent of the cost of Mr. Ovitz’s cash package as a business expense,” Rosenthal wrote. “The taxpayer will have to pay that — because of the astonishing misjudgment that Mr. Eisner and Mr. Ovitz made about each other.”

In other areas of controversy, the company garnered press after:

— Disney’s Miramax subsidiary paid $2 million for a film described by Variety as a “dark comedy about blue-blooded incest.” Titled “The House of Yes,” the film about incest between a male and his twin female made headlines at the recent Sundance Film Festival in Utah.

— A report in Brandweek noting that Disney’s future plans include a brewpub at Disneyland, where beer already is sold; a supermarket line of premium packaged foods, beginning with upscale brand of cookies; and “growth via ventures in cruise ships, real estate and, possibly, casinos.”

— Disney was warned in late 1996 by the Chinese government that the release of a new film, “Kundun,” about the Dalai Lama might endanger Disney efforts to expand in China.

— the company’s Disney Channel experienced a drop of 3 million cable subscribers. Some of the decrease was attributed to Disney making the channel part of basic or expanded cable packages in some areas. But Donald E. Wildmon, president of the American Family Association, said that doesn’t entirely explain the Disney decrease.

“Disney realized that given a choice, many families concerned with the company’s anti-family policies and practices were likely to cancel their service in support of the boycott,” wrote Wildmon, a chief proponent of boycotting Disney. “By including the Disney Channel as a basic cable channel, Disney knows that families are less likely to disconnect.”

A company official denied Disney was eliminating the channel as a pay service option on cable systems.

— Hollywood Records, a Disney subsidiary, signed the rock group Danzig, which the AFA Journal called an “occultic rock band … with lots of dark, Gothic and sexual imagery.”

— the sitcom “Ellen” on the Disney-owned ABC network continuing flirting with the possibility of its lead character eventually declaring herself to be a homosexual.

During a recent taping of “Ellen,” lead actress Ellen DeGeneres reportedly changed the words of the last verse of a song she sang to: “By the way, I’m gay. It’s OK. I’m gay.” But press reports said the song would not be included in the airing of the episode.

One of the sitcom’s sponsors, Mazda, told Advertising Age it would temporarily cease advertising on the show if Ellen declares herself to be a homosexual.

— a new book, “Disney and the Bible: A Scriptural Critique of the Magic Kingdom” (Camp Hill, Pa.: Horizon Books, 1996) by Perucci Ferraiuolo cited a variety of concerns about Disney.

Ferraiuolo found numerous problems with products and films of Disney and its subsidiaries, including: occultic and New Age themes, inappropriate sensuality, distortion of biblical teachings, exaltation of sin and a pro-homosexuality bias.

On the positive side, Disney scored favorably in a survey commissioned by The Orlando Sentinel. Most of the central Florida residents surveyed said that Disney is doing an average or above-average job as a corporate citizen and that the company’s influence on American culture is somewhat positive or very positive.

The survey also said Disney has increased job opportunities, entertainment options, educational opportunities, funds to build public facilities and the racial and ethnic mix of the area.

Disney also announced plans to allow construction of a church in Celebration, a planned community that one newspaper called “a suburb to the Magic Kingdom.”

The decision comes three decades after the death of Walt Disney, who would not allow a church to be built on Main Street in either Disneyland or Disney World.

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  • Keith Hinson & Art Toalston