Disney seals Fox Family deal

The Walt Disney Co. finalized its $5.3 billion deal to acquire Fox Family Worldwide from News Corp. and Haim Saban on Monday and unveiled plans to turn Fox Family Channel domestically into ABC Family-a general entertainment cable channel that Disney will use to re-purpose ABC Sports, News and primetime series.

The deal, which is Disney's largest acquisition since it bought ABC, also gives the media giant a 76% ownership interest in Fox Kids Europe, full ownership of Fox Kids channels in Latin America and Saban's 6,500-episode library of animated and live-action children's programming including titles such as Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. Disney is paying $3 billion in cash and assuming $2.3 billion in debt and studio execs say the deal should close within three to four months-pending government approval. The deal gives News Corp. an infusion of cash as it attempts to purchase DirecTV. Fox network executives say the Fox Kids programming block will continue to air for at least another season.

ABC Family will meld Fox Family Channel programming, ABC properties and also TV evangelist Pat Robertson's 700 Club at the outset. Disney executives say they are contractually obligated to carry at least three hours of Robertson's religious programming, which currently airs on Fox Family Channel as part of News Corp. and Saban's original acquisition of the channel from Robertson in 1997. Fox Family Channel also has a commitment to a weekly Major League Baseball game and ABC Family will continue that deal, only co-owned ESPN will produce and sell the advertising.

"If you believe in content like we do, this is a solidifying moment for us and I think this deal is the beginning, frankly, to a new trend in the American broadcasting and cable market," Disney Chairman Michael Eisner says. "This acquisition means that we can still make expensive Hollywood film and entertainment content."

Eisner said Fox Family executives will continue at the network for the time being and that decisions on the networks' programming and executive ranks will be made shortly. He did stress opportunities for consolidation within ABC Family and Disney's cable ranks, though.

On the re-purposing front, Disney executives talked of opportunities for airing both original and repeats of ABC News programs such as Good Morning America, Nightline and ABC Nightly News on the new ABC Family. ABC President Alex Wallau also said that, through its arrangement with its affiliates, the network can re-purpose 25% of non-news, primetime series within one week of their original ABC airings. Decisions on which primetime shows will air on both outlets are still being made, he said.

ABC has set up a Wednesday conference call for affiliates to discuss Disney's acquisition and potential re-purposing efforts. ABC and its affiliates have one-year to go on a three-year re-purposing and NFL pact. "We have a desire to do a comprehensive deal now with the affiliates on all kinds of issues, including re-purposing and I think this deal (ABC Family) creates an impetus for us to have those discussions sooner rather than later," Wallau said.
- Joe Schlosser