Sponsorships Now on Disney's Menu

Disney Channel is once again checking out the wonderful world of limited sponsorships, but this time is eyeing a long-term commitment, starting with last week's multiyear agreement with McDonald's Corp.

But the onetime premium channel claims it is not following in the footsteps of its ad-supported sibling Toon Disney.

With the deal inked on Feb. 25, McDonald's becomes the first corporate sponsor for Disney Channel's learning-based pre- school block "Playhouse Disney." The fast-food giant will run several 15-second, public-TV-style messages at the start or end of select programs within the daily block.

Cox Communications Inc. vice president of ad sales Billy Farina said, "It's too soon to expect reactions from subscribers."

Disney Channel had not received any early reaction to the move from affiliates last week, ABC Cable Networks Group spokesman Eric Hollreiser said. The channel's affiliate contract allows limited sponsorships, as the channel has done in the recent past, he noted. "It's not advertising," Hollreiser stressed, saying the messages would help reinforce an on-air initiative: "Where Learning Is Powered by Imagination."

The Playhouse Disney block includes Bear in the Big Blue House, Rolie Polie Olie, PB&J Otter
and The Book of Pooh.

Hollreiser declined to discuss the size or length of the deal. Other company sources put the deal at under $2 million.

A related McDonald's "Happy Meal" premium tie-in is another possibility under the deal. The restaurant chain has already hooked up with Disney on Happy Meal giveaways. Last summer, McDonald's gave away a Book of Pooh
figurine and a rebate to a home video from that animated series, Hollreiser said.

Limited sponsorships are nothing new for Disney Channel. In 1994, the network signed its first "presenting sponsor" — Eastman Kodak Co. — for the Magical World of Disney
primetime anthology series. The channel then pitched the idea to other marketers involved as sponsors at Disney theme parks. It later booked Target Stores as a presenting sponsor for a primetime special.

Disney is now pitching sponsorships to other marketers. One could be Kellogg Co., which recently signed a long-term alliance with parent The Walt Disney Co. But Hollreiser declined to identify any prospects.

Among other former non-ad-supported networks, American Movie Classics is considering a move to a full commercial load, perhaps along with sister WE: Women's Entertainment during the upcoming upfront, some industry sources said.

A WE contract that made Johnson & Johnson its exclusive on-air sponsor expires this spring. And AMC, which broke into ad sales offering limited sponsorships, introduced 60- to 90-second "commercial intermissions" last October.

A Rainbow Media Holdings Inc. source said AMC has not yet decided to adopt a full advertising load, although that is "an option we're looking at."

Sister network Bravo also used intermissions to ease into its current, fully ad-supported mode.

"Limited sponsorships is a smart way to transition into the ad world," Bravo Networks executive vice president Ed Carroll said last week. "It gives the network experience in dealing with the ad community, getting in touch with brand managers and so on. And with that format, the network can be selective."

Carroll maintained that Bravo's changeover to a commercial network did not spark resistance from affiliates or subscribers. "As the revenue stream becomes more advanced, affiliates want the opportunity to share" through local avails, he said.

Since offering local avails in early 1999, Bravo affiliates quickly raised the ad-insertable home count — to 40 million.