FOOL ON THE HILL
10 Tips to Save Disney: Part 2

Disney had it all. Network ratings. Growing theme park attendance. Animated flora and fauna that ruled the box office uncontested. Now everyone has an ax to grind with Mickey Mouse. Rick Munarriz thinks it's not too late to heave the pixie dust and awaken the sleeping princess.

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By Rick Aristotle Munarriz (TMF Edible)
August 12, 2002

This is the continuation of an open letter to Disney's (NYSE: DIS) chairman and CEO, Michael Eisner, from a kid at heart. See last Friday's column for Rick's first five ways to save Disney.

6. ABC us
You know what was a bigger shame than plastering Who Wants To Be A Millionaire on ABC four nights a week? Failing to cash in by wrapping the airings with other shows worth watching. CBS used Survivor to grow its audience for CSI. NBC treats Thursday nights like a sit-com farm club. You're taking chances by swiping most of the old shows off the fall schedule, and that's good. But you're taking your one primetime hit -- Monday Night Football -- and airing two established shows before it.

Your mid-season replacements sound more promising than some of your fall debuts. You're turning to HBO and USA for content deals, when it seems like it was just last year that you were so ripe with untapped in-house potential that you gave CSI and Scrubs up to stronger networks.

Act like you matter in the network space, not like you're placing fourth in key demographics. Bring back Battle of the Network Stars, and only invite CBS and NBC like the good ole days. Hire the folks who came up with the clever challenges on The Mole 2, but give them a bankable premise for a reality show this time. And when you finally do land a hit, milk it -- but milk it right. Let it bleed over seamlessly into the rest of your programming

7. In the Nick of time
Why are you splitting up Disney Channel into as many slices as possible, when, in whole, it's still a poor child's Nickelodeon? I know you regret not acquiring Nick, and it's probably too late to wrestle it away from Viacom (NYSE: VIA), but shouldn't you be learning from Viacom's playbook, the way ABC can learn lots by watching how NBC plays the game?

Life would be so much easier for you if more rode on Sponge Bob or any of the Klasky-Csupo animated franchises than on Winnie the Pooh. While your preschool programming is fine, you need more than Even Stevens to attract the potty-trained.

Bring back the Mickey Mouse Club. Introduce a little edge to your original content. Play off the nostalgia with updated Davy Crocket and Spin and Marty shows. Help introduce the public to Disney's Animal Kingdom theme park by filming an edgy animal show there. Bring a "Slime Time Live" challenge-themed show to Disney's California Adventure. Shake those assets.

8. Say yes to no men
Executives who don't always agree with you leave and sometimes move on to great things. You're too chummy with the board of directors, creating a useless group that lacks the necessary dissension to challenge your leadership. Maybe you're too seasoned to respect an opposing, unproven view, but how can you not be insulted by a perpetual chorus of headnodders?

Disney is not in a financial position to take big chances, but don't deny your shareholders the fact that small chances need to be taken at this point. Bad decisions, not a bad economy, put Disney where it is today. Competing networks, park operators, and studios have taken steps forward, while Disney has taken them backward. Why weren't you challenged every step of the way down? How did this happen? Look around you. They're all smiling at you right now, aren't they?     

9. Listen to Alice
Remember at this year's annual meeting, when a Disney Store cast member got up during the Q&A to praise your efforts after 9/11? You simply referred to her as Alice, recognizing that she was one of the few shareholders in attendance not looking to skewer you. We know Alice a little better at the Disney discussion board. We know her as someone who works part-time at the store, not because she has to, but, well, because she wants to.

Alice isn't the only shareholder sharing her thoughts, concerns, and suggestions. Our board is far more varied than yours. While I would like to think that you have far greater matters to tend to than browsing through Disney newsgroups and online discussion boards, you would find some of the exchanges out there as refreshing and ultimately more rewarding than dealing with the real-life queue of Eisner fans looking to FastPass their way to the attraction that culminates in the patting of your back. Listen to Alice. She cares. She's everywhere. 

10. Leave a legacy
While I find the Leave a Legacy sculptures at Epcot to be a bit of an eyesore, I can relate to folks who want to leave a lasting impression. I didn't see your digital tile there, but I'm sure you feel the same way on a much grander scale.

This is your legacy. While folks will always remember how you brought the company back from the brink of fiscal obliteration nearly two decades ago, will they be forced to add an asterisk to your tenure?

He was great, BUT...

He saved us at first, BUT...

I know you don't want it to end that way. But I also know you can't go out on top without recognizing the reasons why you're at the bottom right now. "It all started with a mouse and ended with a rat," isn't something you want to see on a company tombstone.

So we're back at Beast's castle, and it looks like the door isn't going to hold out much longer. They're coming for you, and they've got proxies and tempers at the ready for next year's annual meeting. You have to make them love you to save yourself. That involves retracing some steps, which can be an awfully humbling process.

You think you can handle it? You think you can find your way back to greatness, realizing it involves admitting you got lost along the way? You think you can win the hearts of your investors, even if it admits saying you were sorry?

Be our guest.

Rick Aristotle Munarriz lives in Florida and can be found at Disney World far more often than he would care to admit. He owns a piece of Disney, more than just the brick that bears his surname in front of the last turnstile at Magic Kingdom's monorail-side entrance. He also has a few shares of Pixar in his youngest son's IRA. Rick's other stock holdings can be viewed online, as can the Fool's disclosure policy.