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News: Analysis & Commentary: MEDIA


Why so many groups are taking potshots at Disney

These days, Walt Disney Co. is collecting critics the way Winnie the Pooh's honey pot collects bees. Indeed, the groups lined up against the $20 billion media giant--including Southern Baptists, Catholics, the Concerned Women for America, and the National Federation of the Blind--outnumber the hit shows on Disney's struggling ABC network. Disney is even under fire from fellow baseball-club owners for insisting that Tony Phillips of the Disney-owned Anaheim Angels undergo drug counseling after an Aug. 10 arrest and suspension for alleged cocaine possession.

The irony couldn't be more acute. Having spent decades promoting itself as America's family-values entertainment company, Disney now faces groups that accuse it of being just the opposite. On June 15, for instance, the Southern Baptists called for a boycott of all Disney films, TV shows, and theme parks as a protest against what it called Disney's "gay-friendly policies." The offense: extending same-sex benefits to employees last year, just as most Hollywood studios had earlier done, and having Ellen DeGeneres come out of the closet on her TV show. "They're all bad in Hollywood to one degree or another," says Donald E. Wildmon, president of the American Family Assn. and an early supporter of the Baptists' boycott. "But Disney's the biggest target of them all."

The reason is evident: Scoring a hit on Disney guarantees an advocacy group or religious organization a bonanza of publicity--and usually new support. The Baptist boycott was picked up in Time and Newsweek and on TV shows across the nation. Now the automated switchboard at Wildmon's headquarters offers a telling menu: "Dial `0' for information on the Disney boycott," it instructs. "Dial `3' to make a contribution." Wildmon says there's nothing wrong with what the Baptists are doing. "Why would Disney be afraid of a little publicity?" he asks. "Publicity has made that company."

Any impact on Disney's results is indiscernible. Walt Disney World in Orlando has had only scattered cancellations since the Baptists called for a boycott, and Disney's earnings have increased by 27%, to $1.5 billion, for the nine months ended June 30. And some Baptists seem to be boycotting the boycott. "If there is a theme that connects many of the Disney cartoon works, it is love, acceptance, and appreciation of those who are different from us," Michael Catlett, pastor at the McLean (Va.) Baptist Church, told his flock the week after the boycott began.

Still, the criticism is likely to increase. Later this year, when Disney releases its live-action movie Mr. Magoo, the National Federation of the Blind may picket. The group objects to the nearsighted Magoo's portrayal as a bumbler. And the conservative group Concerned Women for America could picket at Walt Disney World. Their complaint? That Disney showed a little too much animated flesh in The Little Mermaid and Pocahontas--films that are more than two years old.

For Disney Chairman Michael D. Eisner, this can't be much fun. Disney is building new theme parks in Orlando, Anaheim, and Tokyo and is considering others elsewhere. It still has problems with its ABC unit, where ratings remain dreadful. The company's response to all the furor? "We hope the good we do will continue to exceed any objections people may have." But odds are Disney will keep colliding with groups that have media ambitions of their own.By Ronald Grover in Los Angeles

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