Disney loves their formula. They have a perfect little box that they like to keep their projects and creators inside of despite Walt Disney giving us the literal devil in Fantasia. It often stops them from taking chances on projects and progressive storytelling. Also, Disney has also showcased a lot of the same horrible behavior and treatment that has been listed so far in this article.
Coming into the early 2000’s, Disney Television Animation or TVA was incredibly focused on franchise series for the Disney Channel like the Aladdin and Buzz Lightyear shows. But those ratings were falling off so Disney TVA was highly considering shifting away from creator-driven TV-Y7 rated shows to pre-school-focused programming only. It was the safest choice that would lose them the least amount of money.
The saving grace that kicked off a new animation renaissance on the network was Phineas and Ferb.
Phineas and Ferb was such a massive hit it opened the door to series like Gravity Falls, Star vs the Forces of Evil, and later entries like The Owl House and Amphibia. Disney saw they could still make money on these series. But it was only because Phineas and Ferb was a wildly popular hit. If it had failed, we’d be talking about a very different-looking Disney Channel today.
There is a fear among Disney executives of losing money despite being one of the richest companies on the planet. It has often led to conflicts with its creators.
Bless Alex Hirsch, Matt Braly, Sam King, Dana Terrace, and so many other Disney TVA creators and showrunners who have been quite vocal over the years about how Disney as a corporation has treated them and their work. One of the best ways to see what’s going on behind the curtain of the Big Mouse is not to follow big names like Jon Favreau, who will always have the best treatment. Follow the smaller creators. That’s where you see the truth come out.
One of the best examples of Disney trying to protect themselves and controlling a show came in Gravity Falls. Alex Hirsch gave an interview with The Mary Sue about the lengths Disney would go to stop queer content in their shows. One episode in question was “The Love God” where Cupid shows up. One of the storyboard artists drew two little old ladies falling in love. They’re not even named characters. Hirsch knew it would be a problem with Disney censors and, like the fantastic creator he is, left it in. He told The Mary Sue:
"“The note came back immediately “The scene of the two old ladies kissing in the diner is not appropriate for our audience. Please revise.” I responded with a one word answer: “Why?” This basically broke the censors. The couldn’t think of a single way to phrase an answer to that question so they made me talk on the phone so there would be no paper trail. They were terrified of sounding like bigots… They basically admitted that there was no good reason why I should change it, but that they get complaints about this stuff from various homophobic parents and would rather avoid the headache, and couldn’t I just drop it? I said that if we did that we were basically just being held hostage by bigots and screw that, lets rise above this crap and just pull the trigger. The worst thing that can happen is that we get some letters. Who cares? … It’s one of the only times I had a face to face meeting with the censors. I didn’t want to go back to my board artist and tell her that I lost this fight. I wanted to win, and I wanted to set a precedent, and I argued that little things like this could mean the world to people and that anyone who was pissed off deserved to be pissed off. But despite my greatest efforts it finally came down to ‘change the scene or we’ll cut it out of the episode ourselves.’”"
It’s like a throwback to the days of the Hays Code. It’s disgusting the lengths Disney went to avoid a paper trail and save their skins.
For Gravity Falls’ 10th anniversary, Hirsch posted a video sharing real emails he got from Disney censors. It’s a hilarious watch, but it’s also insightful on how the censors in the company look at their shows. Apparently, according to that video, furries are a big concern for Disney.
This is just one of many stories of Disney pulling this kind of behavior with their creators. Sam King mentioned a similar take with Disney executives when she wanted to make Penny in DuckTales a lesbian. She had to figure out a way to convey this around the Disney censors. Matt Braly had to fight against the Disney formula for his main character, Anne Boonchuy, to start the show hating Amphibia. Disney wanted him to make her a chipper “ray of sunshine and bubblegum” happy trope. He heard this from execs for years. Even if these creators get a show, the executives are always looking out for the company first.
To be fair, it is not every executive in the company as Dana Terrace has started when it comes to their content. It’s about finding the right executive to back them up versus the wrong executives who will snub them. Because executives in each department that have their own higher-up executives to answer to. So, execs in Disney TVA might be on board but they have to answer to their bosses too. It’s an entire chain of command going on. Once Terrace was stubborn enough to find the right people to let her have queer content in The Owl House, she said she was “very supported by the current Disney leadership.”
Cable contracts can also make it difficult for creators. Unlike Netflix and more recent streaming services, Disney still has many long-standing contracts with cable networks. Cable networks hold a lot of power over Disney because the Big Mouse gets billions of dollars of ad revenue from these companies. To be clear, this isn’t just the Disney Channel. These are also channels Disney owns like ABC and ESPN. Disney is required to put content on cable which oftentimes traps shows there. Thing is, cord-cutting has been on the rise for years with over 50 million people dropping cable in favor of streaming services.
There are now two kinds of shows being created for Disney: the ones that air on cable first and ones made for Disney+. To use some Star Wars examples, Clone Wars season seven and The Bad Batch were both made for Disney+. The finale episode of Clone Wars was the most watched episode that year for a sci-fi series beating out both Stranger Things and The Mandalorian with 139.9 average daily expressions. It was a jump from its premiere which was 67 million.
Star Wars Rebels and Star Wars Resistance were both released on cable. Rebels’ season two finale had one of the highest ratings for the channel Disney XD. But the numbers were nowhere close to Clone Wars with Rebels getting roughly 13 million views. This premiered in 2016 when cord-cutting was less than 24 million viewers. Resistance didn’t get the same luxury as it aired from 2018-2020 where cord cutting jumped from 33 million to 45 million viewers which put Resistance at a much greater disadvantage than Rebels because fewer people have a chance to watch it. Also, these two series first aired on the side channel, Disney XD, which is a premium channel for cable costing extra money in some cases to get it. Also to note as of recently, Disney XD is in the process of being phased out worldwide.
Matt Braly has been very vocal over the years about how these cable contracts hurt his show Amphibia. Because of how cable contracts worked, a season of Amphibia had to complete its entire season run before going up on Disney Plus. As a creator, he said:
"“I’d prefer if episodes would just go up a week after airing…not this whole waiting for an entire season to finish junk. Cable is desperately trying to hang onto what they have and it’s embarrassing” and that “…Disney is very inflexible and any new practice can take months and months to implement. Content will start to go up faster but probably closer to the second half of the year. If we’re lucky.…cable is essentially a wasteland and numerous shows are still bizarrely trapped there.”"
He also said in response to another Twitter user,
"“It’s such a shame, we’re busting our [expletive] on a show that is barely accessible thanks to the practices of Disney Channel. Everyone has Disney+ now so the whole thing makes no sense and our content suffers greatly for it.”"
More towards the back half of Amphibia’s run, Disney did start uploading episodes faster to Disney+ during hiatuses which did help.
Also according to Braly, cable ratings aren’t always accurate. He stated on Twitter:
"“I’ve never felt passionately about telling people to watch the show on Disney Channel because the truth is – if you’re not a Nielsen family your vote doesn’t really count. Streaming is different. Every single view counts now. So help us spread the word! … Help let Disney know that this is the kind of content you’d like to see more of! We’re so excited that WAY more folks will now have access to our show. If the show does well enough on Disney+ to get noticed, merch might be a REAL possibility!”"
Outside of Disney essentially limiting its cable shows, Braly brings up another important factor which is merchandise.
I’ve already discussed this in the Netflix section. I just wanted to point out again that not making merchandise hurts these shows. Also, Disney has canceled merchandise already in production with no explanation as Alex Hirsch has mentioned in this Twitter thread.
The maddening thing to me most of all is when Disney punishes shows for doing exceptionally.
The Owl House is a critically acclaimed series. It’s historic with the first bisexual lead character of a series and the first non-binary character in Disney’s history. The series has been nominated for the Annie Awards, the Emmys, and the GLAAD Media Awards, and it has also won a Peabody Award. It has an engaged fanbase that pushed for shirts and merchandise to be sold in stores like Hot Topic (remember, these shows usually don’t get merchandise). The Owl House was even renewed for a second season before season one even aired. According to Deadline, it was a top-five show in its age bracket for cable ratings. And on Disney Channel YouTube, The Owl House content had over 58 million views. This series seemed like it had everything going for it.
This is why fans were shocked to hear that season three was not only the last but it was also being cut from a full 22-episode season down to three 45-minute shorts. This is roughly the equivalent of a six-episode season. It was a slap into the face for a series that was doing so well.
Again the question was why? Was it the queer content? Disney does have a history of stifling those kinds of stories. Was it budget cuts throughout Covid despite the series being a powerhouse for their company? Creator Dana Terrace took to Reddit to offer up the explanation.
The reason why The Owl House was canceled and shortened is that it was performing well outside its target demographic and didn’t fit the Disney brand. It was also a serialized series, and they wanted to focus on more episodic content.
I’m going to repeat that nonsense:
The Owl House was performing exceptionally, and Disney punished them for it.
Because it didn’t fit their perfect brand formula. Terrace went on to say that the executives didn’t even give her a chance to defend her show or fight for it. They didn’t even talk to her beforehand. The decision was also made well before The Owl House was on Disney+ where it has been constantly trending on the platform ever since. Remember, more people are watching the streaming service than cable. She pointed out their ratings are incomplete because of the unknown numbers of its streaming service performance.
Reuben Baron of Paste Magazine mused in an article if The Owl House would have had a better fate if it premiered on Disney+ first. In the piece, the 2021 Lightbox Expo was brought up. It’s a convention for industry professionals. One of the features was Disney rolling out their ongoing brand and what it means. Disney Channel, which was what The Owl House aired on, was going to be for their target 6-11 year old demographic going forward. Disney+ was all-age viewing including shows targeted at teenagers and adults which is the age group that The Owl House was the most popular. But The Owl House premiered two years before this announcement, and the show got caught in the middle of this new direction just like so many Netflix and HBO Max series discussed.
In my personal opinion, if Disney had any sense, they would completely move The Owl House to air on Disney+ by itself. Though, the company is still held hostage by those cable contracts so The Owl House suffers for it.
Disney is not as rosy and wonderful to animation as they would like people to think. When the backlash to Don’t Say Gay was rolling out, Dana Terrace flat out said she was tired of making the company look good while the Big Mouse didn’t support their LGBTQIA+ workers. Disney wants audiences to believe they are the best place in the world. That animation is important to them! It’s what Walt Disney himself would want!
But they’re just as bad as the other streaming services.
This brings us to Lucasfilm.