The Walt Disney Company, more often referred to as simply “Disney,” was founded in 1923 and for the better part of the last 94 years, the house of mouse has been slowly taking over the entertainment and media landscape.
Disney’s mergers and acquisitions department has had a busy and productive century. By gobbling up seemingly every production company, animation studio, and television station in America, Disney has managed to become the world’s largest independent media conglomerate with no plans to slow down.
This kind of large scale take over of industry is not something we have seen since the time before antitrust laws and the existence of Standard Oil. With this uncharted territory it figures that many people are concerned regarding Disney’s looming monopoly. Many are concerned about its effect on the media industry as a whole, or its effect on the consumers ability to make choices, and some are simply concerned about their favorite shows and franchises falling into the hands of another production company.
All of these concerns are warranted, and we can look back at Disney’s nine decades of growth to understand the effect it has already had and make predictions as to what the would will look like if Disney continues its current path of total market domination.
First to give an idea at the sheer scale of Disney, we have to take a look at just what exactly Disney owns. You can find the Wikipedia list for assets owned by Disney and easily kill an hour looking through all of the various entities it has folded into its conglomerate. Disney owns tons of production studios, television networks, consumer products, parks and resorts, music, franchises and has even dipped into the areas of finance, venture capital, and international companies.
Disney owns Pixar Animation Studios, Lucasfilm, Marvel Studios, American Broadcasting Companies, A&E Network, the History Network, and ESPN. If you think of ten of your favorite franchises, a good portion of those are owned fully or in part by Disney.
But Disney is not stopping there. Recently, Disney bid $71.3 Billion to acquire Twenty-First Century Fox and all of its assets. This buy will include content and intellectual property including: the 20th Century Fox film production studio, 20th Century Fox Television, the cable networks FX and National Geographic, as well as a good chunk of the online content streaming platform Hulu.
Disney is ambitious and its not limiting itself to the confines of traditional media. It bought out Maker Studios, a collection 60,000 YouTube channels back in 2014 and incorporated it into Disney Digital Network–reaching upwards of a billion followers. Disney even entertained the idea of buying the social media giant Twitter a few years ago. But one of Disney’s biggest goals has been looking for a way to get into the online streaming game. By buying up Twenty-First Century Fox’s stake in Hulu, Disney is looking at becoming the majority shareholder. Acquisition of a streaming service with built-in recognition and technological infrastructure, a huge back catalogue of television shows and movies, and after announcing that the company will pull of of its content from Netflix, Disney is now poised to dominate the online content streaming world.
The near comical scale of Disney’s takeover has inspired its fair share of jokes. One example of this is in an episode of The Simpsons titled “Lisa the Beauty Queen.” Principal Skinner uses the slogan “The Happiest Place on Earth” for his school’s carnival but is then quickly told by a lawyer that Disney owns that sentence. Another joke appeared in a early episode of Family Guy where Peter talks about the illegality of copyright infringement before his head morphs into Mickey Mouse. By buying Twenty-First Century Fox, Disney now owns both of those jokes.
It’s no question that Disney has created a behemoth of a entertainment conglomerate. The real and more pressing question is to what extent, if any, does this consolidation affect the consumer and the industry. While no one can guess the future of Disney and its role in the world, its track record thus far has left something to be desired.
With a treasure chest of content, a stock market tentpole, and more money than God, Disney has been able to wield a tremendous amount of power. Generally speaking, this power is not used to the benefit of humanity and more often is a way for the company to maintain and protect their economic interests.
One of the ways that Disney makes sure that it keeps the money machine churning is through copyright laws. Disney is somewhat notorious for its liberal use of the copyright system— and for good reason.
The original Copyright Act in the United States gave copyrights a duration of 14 years, but now intellectual property can be copyrighted for decades. This gives many companies the ability to keep a tight grip on its content and no one is better at this than Disney. In fact, many people believe the reason The United States Copyright Act has been extended by so much is due Disney itself.
“Steamboat Willy” was the very first Mickey Mouse cartoon to exist. It is the bedrock and the foundation on which the entire Disney empire is built upon. Unfortunately for the company, Walt Disney created the character in 1928 and even with renewals and extensions the lifespan of the copyright was set to expire 1984. Fearing this looming loss of their founding character, the company lobbied congress to change the law.
So in 1976, Congress passed a major overhaul of the copyright system, ensuring that the Mouse would be protected up until 2003. Then, once again fearing a looming loss, Disney left Burbank for DC and lobbied for another favor. And just like that Congress passed another copyright law in 1998, effectively pushing The Mouse’s expiration date to the year 2023.
Putting aside for a moment the inherent issues of a company being able to call up Congress like someone calls customer service, continuously extending the copyright laws has had an overall negative effect on creativity and innovation in media. According to a paper published in the Berkeley Technology Law Journal, Mark S. Nadel argues that copyright law’s prohibition against unauthorized copying and sales has had a detrimental effect on new creations. The paper makes the claim that the current system of copyright disproportionately inflates the revenues of the most popular creations and reduces the overall production of new creations.
Copyright laws are not the only thing that Disney has meddled with, because if there is one thing that Disney likes even more than the movie theater, it is political theater. Just a few years ago, Disney was caught aggressively lobbying and trying to prevent Florida residents from voting for a healthcare measure that would cost the Happiest Place on Earth more money. Back during the 2012 election, the company dumbed millions of dollars into the pockets of right-wing politicians who were conveniently in favor of tax cuts for Disney and against the proliferation of gambling in the state–which is the Disney parks and resorts’ main rival in the area.
Disney has also recently flexed its muscles against news media it finds unfair or unsatisfactory. Last year, the Los Angeles Times was barred from attending the advanced press screenings of Thor: Ragnarok and The Last Jedi. Several other major outlets boycotted the film screenings in a show of solidarity and Disney eventually caved and restored Los Angeles Times’ privileges. The ban came after the paper ran a two-part expose on the unfair economic arrangement between Disneyland and Disney California Adventure in the city of Anaheim.
But maybe the ends justify the means. For many people the only thing they expect or want out of a company, especially an entertainment-based one, is a good product. So if Disney is still doing solid work, it doesn’t matter if they take on more franchises. Whether or not Disney is a good influence on these franchises is still up for considerable debate.
The are many ways to measure how good something is in the world of entertainment media. There are critical receptions, fan reviews, aggregate scores, and box office ticket sales. But overall, the subject nature of entertainment means that all of this is a matter of personal opinion. While it would be hard to argue objectively that franchises and studios purchased by Disney have gotten worse after acquisition, it can be argued that they have been changed.
Disney is a brand, and it is a distinct brand that the company has been painstakingly maintained and refined over the years. Disney has two goals for all of its content: To make money, and to fit the family friendly tone of the brand. This has always guided the kind of content that the studio makes but it can also be seen in the companies it acquires.
Pixar had a legendary decade-long run as the powerhouse of creative visual expression. For a long time it was the poster child for commercial and artistic excellence and a creative standard that guided the studio into making some of most renowned pieces of animation. But somewhere along the line, Pixar lost whatever made it a success in the first place. Right around the time Disney purchased the animation studio for $7.4 billion in 2006, Pixar pivoted its focus. It began to churn out sequels. This was a noticeable change considering the studios original aversion to sequels. The new sequels made their money but they lost the critical reception with many claiming that they didn’t have the emotional connection that Pixar was originally known for, and that they had become soulless money grabs.
This was also seen in the Star Wars movies after Disney had acquired Lucasfilm in 2012, starting right away with The Force Awakens being very similar to A New Hope. From there the company continued its practice of rehashing and playing it safe. All of the movies revolve around familiar characters and come out yearly like clockwork.
This so-called Disneyfication, is the process in which something is sanitized, something is transformed into a controlled and safe version of its former self. This is what is happening to a lot of the media that Disney has gotten its hands on. It’s not that their products aren’t good or worth seeing, it’s that they strip away all of the edge, the uncharted territory, and groundbreaking risks that made them successes in the first place and turn them into saccharine and hollow shells.
By incorporating all of Western media into one company and having that company impose its family-friendly tone and risk averse style, all of it starts to look the same. The homogenization of the media landscape spells trouble for consumers who want something different. One of the main benefits to having a variety of studios is choice in what type of media you consume, but with Disneyfication, that seems to be fading away.
So Disney’s takeover of entertainment does not seem to be good for the consumer nor does it seem to be helping the industry as a whole. But with the United States Department of Justice continuing to approve the buyouts and Disney continuing to profit off their content, it really doesn’t look like anything is going to get in Disney’s way.