IS IT MAGIC KINGDOM OR AN EVIL EMPIRE?;FOR MARKETERS, IT ALL DEPENDS ON HOW DISNEY HANDLES 'DOMINANCE'

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You could almost feel it. An abrupt shift in the strata of the media sphere. In the span of a little more than a week, a series of multimedia deals have reshaped entire continents of media content and distribution.

While the seismic action is sure to continue-including aftershocks of Westinghouse Electric's offer to acquire CBS-one dominant feature emerged on the face of media planet earth: Walt Disney Co. and new subsidiary Capital Cities/ABC.

The move makes Disney the biggest world power in what's becoming an increasingly global media game with players like News Corp., Viacom, NBC and Turner Broadcasting System, as well as global wanna-bes like Time Warner, Seagram Co., Tele-Communications Inc., Gannett Co., Reuters and Dow Jones & Co.

But it is Disney that's the closest thing to a global marketer's dream-or worst nightmare-depending on your point of view.

By combining Disney's unrivaled entertainment content with the sports and news content and increasingly powerful worldwide distribution clout of Cap Cities, Disney becomes uniquely positioned to fulfill virtually any marketing option, on any scale, almost anywhere in the world.

That's the dream. The nightmare is that both companies have a reputation for exacting steep premiums for anything they sell, whether it's direct to consumers or to marketers.

"This is either a fabulous opportunity for marketers or it could signal big trouble ahead," said Steve Farella, exec VP-director of media services at Jordan, McGrath, Case & Taylor, New York. "The windfall could happen if Disney uses its assets to create new media opportunities. The trouble will be if they use their dominance of the market to leverage their pricing."

For example, Mr. Farella said the combined Disney and ABC U.S. kids TV programming assets will control 30% of all kids ratings points available to advertisers. Both companies already have reputations for charging premium ad rates for their children's shows.

On the other hand, he said, Disney would likely move to expand the pie of children's TV viewers by offering new viewing options, such as an ad-supported basic cable TV version of its Disney Channel pay cable service.

Even better, he said, would be if as one result of the $19 billion deal, Disney worked with ABC's radio unit to develop the Disney kids radio network-something Disney has hinted at in the past, and something that would give marketers another alternative in the fledgling children's radio field.

Such moves would put pressure on the other dominant kids TV brands, including Fox, Viacom's Nickelodeon and TBS' emerging Cartoon Network.

"That's the kind of stuff that's getting us excited. Not the fact that they will supply ABC more programming. They would do that anyway," Mr. Farella said.

In a Securities & Exchange Commission filing, Disney confirmed plans to expand its presence on ABC, including assumption of ABC's Saturday morning kids lineup beginning in the fall of 1996, as well as several new prime-time shows, including a new Disney anthology series called "The Magical World of Disney."

Interestingly, it was Walt Disney's original licensing deal for "Disneyland" (later known as "The Wonderful World of Disney") with then ABC chief Leonard Goldenson in 1954 that got Disney into the TV business, as well as the other major Hollywood studios. The deal was also an important financial underpinning for Disney at a time when the company was financially strapped.

In fact, the merging of the Disney and Cap Cities brands is more than just a cultural affinity, but possibly one of the best complements two consumer brands could have.

Disney, already the most powerful consumer entertainment/media brand worldwide, and ABC, one of the top consumer media brands in the U.S., each will benefit from the other's strengths, said Stuart Agres, director of corporate research of Young & Rubicam Inc., New York.

Y&R's extensive Brand Asset Valuator study, which measured more than 3,500 consumers' attitudes on more than 8,500 brands worldwide, shows that both the Disney and ABC brands have only minor deficiencies.

"Disney is incredibly strong. It's the strongest media brand in the world. The only problem they have with any constituency-and it's a minor one-is among young men who've never been married. For ABC, the constituency problem is young families," Mr. Agres said. "So, in essence, they are the ideal complement for each other."

Indeed, Cap Cities' ABC News, ABC Sports and ESPN will strengthen Disney's efforts with young males-something Disney's own sports-related endeavors, including team ownership and marketing, have been building to overcome. Disney's strength with young families will complement ABC's marginal weakness there. (ABC is the dominant network in ratings among young families, but the Y&R study accounts for attitudes about brands, not actual behavior.)

Disney Chairman-CEO Michael Eisner initially seemed most enthused about Cap Cities' ESPN unit, which has emerged as an incredibly profitable and fast-growing jewel, and he cited it as the area that would likely receive the most immediate synergies.

Disney and ESPN already had a deal to create an ESPN Sports World bar and sports theme park attraction at the Disney Boardwalk near Walt Disney World in 1996.

But Mr. Eisner alluded to potential new hybrid programming and merchandising channels that would blend Disney and ESPN product worldwide, noting that family entertainment and sports are the least political and most amenable forms of entertainment content to be distributed in culturally sensitive areas of the globe.

In fact, ESPN is already a leader in distribution of its TV programming brand worldwide. It's currently delivering some form of ESPN programming to nearly 150 counties in 18 languages.

"Our plan is to think globally, but to customize locally," said David Zucker, senior VP of ESPN International. "That's why you will see close to 1,000 hours of cricket this year on our service in India."

In Latin America, he said ESPN emphasizes soccer; in Asia, table tennis.

"We've been very quiet about what we've built. And China is a good example of that. We are the only foreign network distributed in China. We have very good relations with the government, and for obvious reasons, we've had to keep it very quiet," Mr. Zucker said.

Mr. Eisner and retiring Cap Cities Chairman-CEO Thomas Murphy acknowledged that their courtship has been going on for years and that the two companies are ideally suited for each other now that changes in federal regulations make a studio and network merger feasible.

Those same forces are expected to step up the play for other networks and even though the CBS and Westinghouse boards approved Westinghouse's takeover of CBS, rival bidders are expected to step forward.

As consumer brands go, Y&R's Mr. Agres said, the Westinghouse-CBS merger does little for either party.

"Westinghouse basically is not a brand, and it doesn't add anything to CBS," he said. "They are known more for appliances than for entertainment."

Indeed, last week's merger announcements were a study in contrasting style and brand imagery.

The unexpected Disney/Cap Cities announcement was perceived as the realization of a dream, including a hushed, almost reverential news conference held at ABC's New York news studios.

In contrast, the long-expected Westinghouse announcement was an anti-climatic, almost unruly event held off-site at New York's Waldorf-Astoria, and at which the reporters practically heckled the principals.

"This does nothing for us brandwise," conceded a CBS executive. "Westinghouse is looking to brand themselves with CBS."

As Disney's SEC filing indicates, distribution is a key aspect of its merger with Cap Cities. Disney has been learning that lesson the hard way. In the past couple of years, it has had to resort to paying cash compensation to some stations to carry some of its syndicated TV shows.

Now, Disney has guaranteed distribution on ABC, including an outlet for its animated kids shows on ABC's Saturday morning schedule. That arrangement could stem the growth of DreamWorks SKG, a new entertainment studio created by Disney defector Jeffrey Katzenberg, Steven Spielberg and David Geffen that had a 50/50 TV programming venture with ABC.

DreamWorks was expected to play a key role in ABC's Saturday morning development, but that relationship is now uncertain.

In announcing the deal, Mr. Eisner said he had given Cap Cities/ABC President-Chief Operating Officer Robert Iger a five-year contract, with plans to keep him in charge of Cap Cities. Mr. Iger now is seen as a potential successor to Mr. Eisner.

Jane Hodges and Jeff Jensen contributed to this story.

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