Disney gets religion

How badly does the Mouse want to be one of the big boys in broadcasting? So much so that late last month, Mickey agreed to get into bed with Pat Robertson.

Now, depending on your sexual orientation and/or political bent, televangelist Robertson is either God's close, personal friend or the devil himself. This unlikely union occurred when Disney execs -- desperate for another cable outlet to carry the company's expensive ABC, ESPN and Disney Channel programming -- put in a bid for Fox Family Worldwide. Should the deal go through, Mickey will pay $3 billion (and assume $2.3 billion in debt) to Fox Family's current co-owners, Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. and Haim Saban.

In return, Disney gets a cable network with more than 80 million subscribers. That includes the Fox Family Channel -- formerly just the Family Channel -- plus Saban Entertainment and its animation library, as well as 76 percent of Fox Kids Europe and Fox Kids Latin America.

Oh, and one other thing: Two mandatory daily broadcasts of Robertson's Christian-broadcasting staple, The 700 Club.

This requirement is a carry-over from Murdoch and Saban's negotiations with the Family Channel's original owner: Rev. Robertson. You see, way back in 1997, Roberston agreed to sell off the Family Channel's parent company for $1.9 billion, with one condition: Murdoch & Saban could run whatever programming they wanted 22 hours a day. But at 10 a.m. and again at 11 p.m. Monday-Friday, the channel would have to air an episode of "The 700 Club."

This particular provision apparently was not negotiable. (Nor was the condition that required "The 700 Club" to be renewed in five-year increments, rather than year-to-year.) So firm was Roberston's resolve that he even rejected Disney's larger bid of $2.2 billion at the time, because Disney made it clear that "The 700 Club" broadcasts would end as soon as Disney took over.

So here it is, four years later. Murdoch and Saban -- tired of Fox Family's fading ratings and mounting debts -- want out. Disney -- ever anxious to find new ways to rebroadcast its programming -- wants in. Even if it means swallowing an extremely bitter pill.

What's Disney's beef? "The 700 Club" is the very program on which Robertson said in June 1998 that it was unwise for Orlando to welcome visitors to Gay Days at Disney World. In particular, he prophecied that if rainbow flags flew, Central Florida might be in line for "terrorist bombs ... earthquakes, tornadoes and possibly a meteor." Robertson's most infamous quote from the show: "I should warn Orlando that you're right in the path of some serious hurricanes, and I don't think that I'd be waving those flags in God's face if I were you."

Of course nothing happened. But that didn't stop Robertson from continuing to rail about the Walt Disney Co.'s productions, procedures and policies extending health-care benefits to its employees' same-sex partners. He complained about Ellen Degeneres, whose character came out on an ABC sitcom. He complained about acts the company's Hollywood Records signed. He complained that Disney deliberately ignored Pocahontas' conversion to Christianity in the animated feature on her life. Nothing the Mouse did was right.

And now, here they are, poised to be partners. How are they getting along so far?

Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network said he's "optimistic about Disney acquiring Fox Family," then went on to suggest the two might actually be a good fit, particularly given Disney's "tremendous library of family programs."

Disney CEO Michael Eisner had a tougher time making nice. Asked about Robertson's previous comments, Eisner glossed over the televangelist's ties to the Religious Right, stating that Robertson was really "not that far to the right."

But don't expect things to stay polite should this multibillion-dollar deal go down. Disney's attorneys are already said to be looking for any loophole in the "700 Club" portion of the negotiations.

From a practical sense, Disney knows Robertson's 11 p.m. rerun will be a blockade between the prime-time lineup on the renamed ABC Family Channel and the network's late-night shows. But in spite of a possible buyout, the televangelist is unlikely to budge. Robertson started "The 700 Club" in 1966, when Christian broadcasting was in its infancy, and the weekday broadcasts are strongest tie to his power base.

Which means that Eisner might not have to travel far to hear from one of his sharpest critics. Though he might find some comfort in what the character of Michael Corleone said in "The Godfather Part II": "Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer."

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