Interview Date: Tuesday December 12, 1989
Interview Location: Los Angeles, CA USA
Interviewer: Marlowe Froke
Program: Penn State Collection
Note: Audio Only
FROKE: We are speaking with James P. Jimirro, founding president of the Disney Channel, former Columbia Broadcasting System executive and now the president and owner of his own video/television production and distribution company which is called J2 COMMUNICATIONS. The date is the twelfth of December and we are recording this first session in Mr. Jimirro’s apartment at 10787 Wilshire Blvd. in Los Angeles, California. Jim, thanks very much for agreeing to do this oral history with us.
JIMIRRO: It’s my pleasure, I’ve been looking forward to it.
FROKE: This is just like old time week. Maybe not so old. You are a graduate of Penn State.
JIMIRRO: That’s right. I remember taking journalism courses from you.
FROKE: I remember your Thespian productions and many, many other wonderful things you did when you were at Penn State. What we’d like to do on the oral history, Jim, is to divide it into four general sections. Like all plans, sometimes they fall apart so we’ll just say we’re going to do it. If it turns out differently, that’s all right, too.
We like to chat generally in areas that would be, broadly speaking, biographical information ‑‑‑ birth dates, your education, your family, and so on. Then we will move into discussion of your career, development of your professional career, which has been pretty much focused on the media from the very beginning.
FROKE: Then we will focus on that particular part of the oral history that is of concern because of the context in which we are doing these oral histories, and that is the cable television industry. We can look at your founding of the Disney Channel, some of the history related to that. Finally, we can talk about one or two of those things that you regard as your major achievements while you were associated with the cable industry. Feel free to talk about anything else that you want to talk about, too.
You were born in Donora, Pennsylvania?
JIMIRRO: That’s right. I was born in the little town of Donora which is about 24 miles away from Pittsburgh, and went to the first four years of school at Monongahela. Monongahela, Donora, and a couple of other cities formed a small megalopolis along the Monongahela River. They were essentially mill towns.
When I was in fourth grade, my father left that environment and went to work for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, and ended up becoming a key executive for that company. In the process we moved to Pittsburgh. I was educated in Pittsburgh through my public school years. I went to a school called Avonworth High School. You were talking about my background in communications. It really began long before I met you, which was when I was in high school.
I had an instinct and affection for communications for as long as I can remember. I was the one broadcasting high school football games. I was the one who was trying out for the debate team. I was the one who wanted to be on the school newspaper and in all the plays. I just seemed attracted to communications. It just didn’t matter which. I loved radio and television and film. I loved public speaking. I loved writing and reading, anything to do with communications. To jump ahead so many years, the name of our new company is actually J2 COMMUNICATIONS. It’s not J2 Entertainment or J2 Video, it’s J2 COMMUNICATIONS, which, in a way, is intended to reflect this broad interest that I have in communications of all sorts.
FROKE: Was it fascination? Was it the radio broadcasting medium that brought you to it?
JIMIRRO: It’s difficult to answer that question. I certainly was fascinated by the radio medium. One of my ideas of fun when I was 13 years old was to go with a couple of guys and watch disc jockeys work, literally. There was a disc jockey named Art Pallan. I think he’s still around working for KDKA in Pittsburgh, 1020 on your dial. As I recall, we used to love to watch him cue up records and say “Stay tuned for Patti Page.” We loved to do that.
Years later I remember being in New York and wanting to go look at Studio 8H at NBC. So, I don’t know how to answer your question. I have this image of myself going to watch disc jockeys work when I was a young teenager. Whether that was what encouraged me in communications, or whether it was a symptom of the fact that I already had this interest, I can’t be sure. I think one of the things, and I think it’s fair to say this about all of us, is that I was pretty good at it. We all as young people tend to be attracted to activities we do well. I was a regular kid, I loved to play sandlot ball, but I wasn’t ever going to be a great athlete.
Maybe I had an aptitude toward speaking or maybe a teacher said, “Gee, you sound pretty good. You ought to try out for the school play.” Maybe part of it is feeling that you have an aptitude for something, but, one way or another, it certainly goes back, literally, as far as I can remember.
FROKE: Was anyone in your family theatrical, from the point‑of‑view of community‑type activities or the way they managed themselves, their demeanor?
JIMIRRO: No, not at all. That’s an interesting question. I had parents who were very encouraging to me in terms of the development of my interests. I have often observed, however, that the interests that formed the center of my life, or the most important part of my life, are ones that I developed without the influence of my parents. What I mean by that is I loved going to plays and going to theaters, but they never took me to the theater. They did a lot of wonderful things for me but that was not one of them. I think about that a lot; if I go to the theater now and see a family and there’s a five or six year old child with them I think, “This is a child that’s going to love the theater in a more natural way.” I ended up discovering it for myself. Actually I would take my parents to the theater. I would say, “Let me share this with you.” I often think of some of the many things that are quite important to me, somehow there were influences other than my parents that brought me to them.
FROKE: Is there a teacher who might have influenced you in this direction, maybe in elementary or in high school? That doesn’t stand out either?
JIMIRRO: No, that doesn’t stand out either. I remember I was perceived to be a relatively good performer in plays, but never good enough to make it a career. I quickly learned that I should get behind the camera not in front of it. Mary Wilson, an English teacher who directed the school plays, used to come up to me and say, “You don’t have to try out, which part do you want?” Of course this was a very small high school. I was in tenth grade, or something. I remember doing a play and there were two leads and she literally said, “Which one do you want?” It wasn’t an ego trip or anything.
FROKE: She appreciated what you could do.
JIMIRRO: One of the things I’ve often said is, I’ve had a great college education, but I don’t really look back and think that I had a great high school education. Being candid, I think there were just a couple of teachers who had a major influence on me. I don’t think it was bad by any means at all. But, I don’t look back at some great master teacher who really moved me along. There were exceptions to that, but not in the area of which we’re speaking.
George Durst, who now lives in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, was an English teacher in high school who all of a sudden decided to make us all general semanticians. He got me interested in general semantics. He had read Korzybski and Stuart Chase and Hayakawa before he was a Senator, Language in Thought and Action. He was the one teacher I would say who showed me how much fun there was in learning and how exciting it was to learn.
FROKE: You were born in 1937.
FROKE: Did you have any sisters or brothers?
JIMIRRO: No, I’m an only child.
FROKE: So your family focused all of its attention on you so to speak?
JIMIRRO: Not so to speak, I think literally. You get that when you’re an only child. Interestingly, when I was being raised as an only child, I loved it and didn’t even think of any other alternatives. As I grew older, I began to miss brothers and sisters. I would see peers who had bigger families and more people around them, I used to think, “It would be nice to have a brother or a sister.”
FROKE: What were some of your mother’s avocations? I understand that she is still living?
JIMIRRO: Yes, she is still living. She was the consummate homemaker. My mother got married when she was very young and I was born very shortly after they were married. I think about a year. She was a homemaker, one of the kinds of mothers and wives that would have come out of that period. I don’t ever sense that she had one iota of regret about that. She was as fulfilled as she could have possibly been. My mother and my father were lovebirds from time immemorial. She got involved in a lot of civic activities and she did volunteer work at hospitals, but she never really earned a living.
FROKE: Was it ordained in some way that you would come to Penn State to do your baccalaureate degree work after you graduated from high school?
JIMIRRO: Not at all, because my Dad had never been to college.
FROKE: You were the first generation to go to college?
JIMIRRO: I was the first generation to go to college, although my Dad, perhaps because he didn’t go to college, was really eager for me to have an education.
FROKE: And he gave you complete choice?
JIMIRRO: Yes. You know what it was like back in those days. Our high school class only had 54 people in it. That puts in perspective my getting the leads in all the plays.
FROKE: My high school class had seven in it.
FROKE: And I could not make the basketball team. (Laughter)
JIMIRRO: We were in a small town near Pittsburgh and everybody knows who’s applying to Penn State, who’s applying to Denison, who’s applying to Harvard and so forth. I was a pretty good student and got accepted at six or seven universities. I chose Penn State because I really liked the idea of going to a large university. It seemed to have a panoply of opportunities. Interestingly enough six of our 54‑person high school class, went to Penn State too. It was about the typical average, 12% of the total.
FROKE: In your career as a student at Penn State you not only took advantage of the curriculum but you had a wide range of extracurricular interests as well.
JIMIRRO: Of course. I had two eras at Penn State. I went back there for Ph.D. work. But again it was so uni‑directional. I went to Penn State and majored in radio, television and film then. I entered Penn State in 1954. The program was quite good but it was not nearly as good as it is now. I got involved in all the activities that related‑‑the Penn State Players, Thespians, WDFM of course, and the other things that supported my interests.
FROKE: When you were graduated from Penn State you chose to go to Syracuse University for your master’s degree.
JIMIRRO: They had a very, very intense program. By intense, I mean eleven months. It was an eleven month program, three semesters. You either finished in eleven months or you left. There wasn’t an option to go beyond that.
By the time I graduated from Penn State I was looking for the best communications program. There were no Annenberg schools then. I remember looking at Boston University, the University of Chicago, Northwestern and Syracuse. Syracuse had a very strong radio and TV program. Kenneth Bartlett was there, and Eugene Foster. It was a professional program. It wasn’t like going to a trade school, but it had a strong professional element to it. That was a great year. The program was between 36‑45 credits, about 40 credits over an eleven month period from September to the following August. By being involved in a group of 30 or 40 or 35 students all of whom were very focused, I must say not only did I have a great year there, but I met some wonderful people who have become lifelong friends. Of course, that’s true of Penn State too. I remember forming a lot of great lifelong friendships and relationships at Syracuse.
FROKE: I happened to read a piece about you in one of the trade papers in which you made reference to the Syracuse year as very important because it gave you a perspective of the history of television and radio which then you were able to make some of your own judgments about. If I remember the phrase correctly, you learned that there really wasn’t much that was new and that things had a tendency to repeat themselves from one medium to another medium. Do you want to expand on that idea a little bit when it went on to become a part of your career.
JIMIRRO: For the first part of that, maybe we should talk about the Ph.D. part because it relates to the same thing in a way. When I got out of Syracuse, (I had actually started school a little early; because of my birth date, I was always the youngest kid in the class.) I had a master’s degree. At the time I was 22 years old. I looked about 14. I thought, what should I do now? I was on the horns of a dilemma because by that time I was attracted to the industry, but I also had done some teaching at Syracuse as part of a graduate assistantship. I found myself attracted to academia because I liked ideas. I liked the idea of being able to take a broader view of events. I was, all of a sudden, on the horns of a dilemma as to whether I wanted to be a practitioner or whether I wanted to teach. I guess one of the ways that I delayed that decision was to go back to Penn State and work towards a Ph.D. in Communications. I never got the Ph.D. but I ended up with three more years of education. I have eight years of college education.
FROKE: You did all your coursework, but did not do the dissertation, is that right?
JIMIRRO: Yes. I got hung up on the foreign languages. Of course, I don’t think you need foreign languages anymore for a Ph.D.
FROKE: You can get a D.Ed. I guess.
JIMIRRO: Having eight years of education with four very intense years in communications has really changed things for me. I was thinking, when I make business decisions or decisions about what kind of television shows to produce or what kind of videos to make or how to market them…I can’t point to the importance of knowing something of the history of communications or something of the social role of communications or something of the government’s role in communications, but the importance is there.
How that background knowledge impacts your day‑to‑day decision‑making is difficult to quantify, but somehow it does. Having that perspective, having that frame of reference just seems to make a difference. I feel that I approach what I do differently than a lot of other people who don’t have the knowledge of what went on in government regulation of broadcasting in 1927. I can’t quantify why that is true but I know that it is. The point of all this is, I would not have traded all that academic experience even though I never use it in the teaching sense, for anything in the world. I think it’s made me different. It’s made me feel differently and behave differently.
FROKE: Your ability to analyze a particular product for marketing draws upon your sense of the economics of the communication industry.
JIMIRRO: For instance, just the whole idea of having a different…
FROKE: For the nature of audiences, segmented audiences, and how to slice out a particular audience for a particular type of program.
JIMIRRO: Then, as you say, I think having that perspective also gives you an opportunity to understand that there really isn’t that much new under the sun. What you were asking about earlier, the trends and the changes and some of the things that seem so important are really just part of the normal cyclical nature of events. One example is how, when every medium comes along, it seems to be a threat to prior media. Most recently the Hollywood community, just 10 years ago, would have literally gone to the San Pedro Harbor and dumped video cassette recorders off the ships coming in from Japan. I mean that literally. That’s how myopic these captains of the entertainment industry were. They couldn’t have seen that this video business today would be larger than movies. What was interesting was that they hadn’t learned that, through the years, whenever they were threatened by a new medium, the new medium often ended up being more financially rewarding to them than the prior medium. They were never convinced, however that it was O.K. to let a new medium in. They behaved in the same way.
FROKE: The film industry reacted the same way to the cable business.
JIMIRRO: And to television before it. It’s just remarkable. Of course the broader perspective on that, whether you know the history or not is that you never want to be provincial. The more things that are happening, the more new distribution systems, the more ways to get information, the more everyone is going to benefit. Reagan said that all ships are lifted in a rising tide. Whether that is true in his case or not I don’t know but it was certainly true of communications. You just want more people doing things. You want more alternatives. You want more choice. You want more energy. That’s what creates excitement and growth: not being provincial and wanting to keep everything for yourself and maintaining the status quo. That never is the best for anybody, especially the consumer, in my view.
FROKE: You were married shortly after you left Penn State?
JIMIRRO: Yes, and then divorced shortly after I was married.
FROKE: And you remarried just a year or two years ago?
JIMIRRO: I actually got married on New Year’s Eve, 1988. As we tape this I’m coming up on a first anniversary.
FROKE: Very nice. I’ll offer you an early congratulations. When you left Penn State, you went to Philadelphia to work for an FM radio station. You were program manager as I recall.
JIMIRRO: I was program director; they called it, of WPBS. PBS stood for the Philadelphia Bulletin Station. By the way, as a sign of the times, when I took that job, which was in 1963, The Philadelphia Bulletin was the largest non‑tabloid evening newspaper in the United States of America. It is today out of business. That’s remarkable. That was in 1963. The largest. The daily circulation at the time was in excess of 800,000.
The Bulletin was the first owner of WCAU‑‑AM/FM TV.
FROKE: Then CBS bought them.
JIMIRRO: In 1958. I happen to remember the price tag which is almost a joke in terms of today’s standards. It was $20 million. AM/FM TV in the fourth largest market. After they sold to CBS, I guess they wanted to put their toe back into broadcasting so they established this FM station. I did become its program director. I was really excited about that. Apropos of my broad interest in communications, people would say to me when I was leaving Penn State, “What do you want to do, radio, TV, journalism?” I told them, I don’t care; I just want to be in communications. I ended up going into radio, not because I liked radio better than TV, or not as well; it just seemed like it was the best opportunity. At the time I simply wasn’t discriminating.
FROKE: What would you characterize as the most important thing that you brought to WPBS?
JIMIRRO: Naiveté. I’m not exaggerating. When I look back I thought that I had all this education and I loved the business. But I know one thing. There’s no substitute for experience. You can’t do anything effectively in my view without experience. If you’re smart and if you’re intuitive and if you’re brilliant and if you’re aggressive and you’re inexperienced, I think you can be bested in a business environment by somebody who doesn’t have all those other attributes but who does have experience. A priori just doesn’t work in life.
Ed Meehan, who’s no longer with us, was the general manager of that station and thought I was the best program director around. And I did very well. When I left there, they tried to get me to stay. I don’t want to suggest that I wasn’t effective there as far as the Bulletin was concerned, but I look back on it as being, by today’s standards, ill prepared to run a division of a communications entity.
FROKE: Were you programming it primarily as a high quality music station?
JIMIRRO: Yes, because the Bulletin had an upscale image. It was not classical, but it was high quality popular music. We had the advantage of all the free advertising we wanted in the Philadelphia Bulletin so we had a large audience.
FROKE: And you could draw from the news staff of the newspaper for…
JIMIRRO: We actually had a news room at the Bulletin. The station itself was at a different place. The Bulletin was downtown in an enormous building. Our news came from the Philadelphia Bulletin. We had a great marketing edge.
FROKE: What prompted you to move to the business side when you shifted to WCAU?
JIMIRRO: I actually was induced to go there by a man named Frank Beasley. Frank Beasley was the general sales manager of CAU. This was now less than two years after I joined the Philadelphia Bulletin Station. Beasley wanted me to come on to be a sales person for CAU. I think I realized early on that I was going to be more interested in business than in programming. I told myself that if I stay in programming, I’ll be able to create certain individual programs but I will not have an opportunity to make decisions about where the industry is going to be and the kinds of programs that are going to be created, and the kinds of stations that are going to be heard and watched. I got more broadly interested. Now I was beginning to really develop some of my thoughts. I said, I really want to be involved in what this system is really going to be like and not just in being a worker in a factory.
FROKE: The financial base of the business determines pretty much who moves you into the front seat so to speak.
JIMIRRO: In those days especially, people out of sales…I think it’s becoming less true today but in ’65 it was…the sales oriented people were running things. Jack Schneider, who was the general manager of WCAU, was a salesman for CBS. Bruce Bryant. They were all salesmen. That’s changed today. There are more lawyers and financial people, but then sales was the road to management and I decided that I wanted to be in management. I wanted to determine broader issues.
I left WPBS and joined Frank Beasley, earning less money and foregoing a corner office. I remember a friend of mine supporting me and saying, “You’re making a strategic withdrawal. Get some sales experience. Get founded in the business of broadcasting so you can do more exciting things down the road.” I actually was at WPBS for less than two years.
FROKE: Were you doing local sales for WCAU?
JIMIRRO: Some national sales and accounts, but mainly local sales and accounts.
FROKE: From WCAU in Philadelphia, you moved to New York directly.
JIMIRRO: Now that was a real interesting thing. CBS had a very, very structured farm system in those days. It’s all changed today. CBS had a career pattern for young bright people like myself. The pattern usually was that one would go to national spot sales in Chicago, and then maybe to national spot sales in New York and then go into station management. You then had a chance to become a manager of one of the five CBS O and O’s. That’s how it worked. When I was at WCAU for about two years, I began to covet New York and wanting to work in New York. I didn’t feel like I wanted to go through the steps of Chicago to New York. I wanted to go directly to the Big Apple. I went to Frank Beasley.
FROKE: New York was the center of radio/television.
JIMIRRO: Yep. I went to Beasley who was a good boss. I said, “Frank, I’d really like to go to New York. I don’t want to go to Chicago; I don’t want to take all the interim steps.” At the time, CBS actually had a division called Management Resources. It was a division that was an outgrowth of a CBS that was so wealthy and so strong and so enlightened in terms of personnel matters. They actually had a man named Cliff Benfield who was in charge of taking young people like myself and making sure that they were properly developed. Frank said, “I’ll introduce you to Cliff Benfield.”
So I went up to New York and I met Cliff and told him that I wanted to go right to New York and he said, “I think I may have something for you. Come on back next week.” So I went back the following week and he said, “I want you to see a man named Willard Block.” I looked at a note that said Willard Block, Vice President of International Sales. I just couldn’t believe this. I had never thought about the possibility of becoming an international businessman which I eventually did. I was very, very, very excited. I went down to see Willard Block.
And I got the job. It’s now 1967 and I am living in New York which is in my view the greatest city in the world, and working for CBS, which was, by any measurable standards, the greatest broadcasting network in the world in those days. It’s not anymore of course. And having an opportunity to travel around the world. It really was too good to be true. It’s everything that I could have ever dreamed of having…career wise, where I lived, and so forth. That was a great period and it enabled me to (and I don’t mean this in a pretentious way but just because of that opportunity) become a world citizen. I became comfortable in many countries around the world, made friends in many countries around the world, and that was just because of the opportunity that I had.
FROKE: Were you selling both radio and television programs?
JIMIRRO: No, just TV and educational films. At the time CBS had an educational film division. We were selling TV programming, educational films, and also news. CBS had a very strong news service. They would provide news footage from their correspondents around the world to stations for insertions in local and national newscasts. That was a real interesting part of the work.
FROKE: Then the FCC decided that this kind of activity was too much concentration of communications power in one entity. I believe that the international sales had to be spun off from CBS.
JIMIRRO: In many ways CBS defaulted on that, not that they might have won anyway. It’s an interesting thing because it relates to cable. There were three issues around at the time. One issue had to do with prime time access, because at the time, prime time was starting at 7:30.
FROKE: And 7:00 was opened up for local.
JIMIRRO: That was a big issue, prime time access. The other issue was ancillary rights. Ancillary included merchandising and financial interests, essentially merchandising and international and domestic sales; having network participation in ancillary activities; and then the ownership of cable systems. CBS at that time had cable systems with 600,000 subscribers or something like that. CBS made a clear decision that prime time access was worth more than all the rest of these issues combined. They made a decision to concentrate their fire in Washington on fighting prime time access and not even engaging in the other battles. They might have lost them anyway. I’m just saying that CBS had made the decision not to worry about those other activities.
They spun off their little cable systems and the CBS Enterprises Group, which included ancillary rights, into a new company called Viacom which they essentially gave to the shareholders. If they had stayed and fought those battles they may have won. The irony is that they concentrated all their fire and finances on prime time access and lost that anyway.
FROKE: At that particular time, 600,000 subscribers was not a small amount of cable business. That was a good number at that time.
JIMIRRO: Just because you say that, Marlowe, I wonder if I have that wrong. That almost seems high to me. I have to go back and check that number.
What’s interesting in retrospect is that it didn’t mean much at the time. They just threw that aside. It just wasn’t very important to them. It was a long time ago. Nobody could have predicted how important cable systems were going to become.
FROKE: Viacom is still in business obviously.
JIMIRRO: That is the pronunciation of the name. It was originally called (Vee‑a‑com) and someone changed it to (Vy‑a‑com). That name, I tell you there’s an interesting anecdote, probably everybody forgets it now. (Vee‑a‑com) as it was called, was Frank Stanton’s own name. It stood for Visual Audio Communications.
FROKE: I did not know that.
JIMIRRO: He came up with the name Viacom. Ralph Baruch, who retired recently from that company, not only did a great job, but really was handed an incredible opportunity. What a wonderful little launching pad‑‑little cable systems and all these CBS programs to sell around the world including the United States. He built that into a major communications company. At the time they were trying to build a new entity in the CBS tradition, of course. Even the logo, the lettering in their name was a lot like CBS. There was a CBS feel to that place because everybody was beholden to the great quality that CBS exemplified in those days.
FROKE: Were you privy to a lot of the discussion that went on about the spin‑off of these activities?
JIMIRRO: No. I really wasn’t.
FROKE: You were tied up in the day‑to‑day activities of selling products overseas?
JIMIRRO: Yes, and at the time, candidly, Ralph Baruch…who was my boss’ boss…I don’t think he was even that much in the loop. In fact, he was not the first president of Viacom. A man named Clark George was. Clark George had been the president of CBS Radio and he was more of a confidant to Paley and Stanton. I think at the time, Ralph wasn’t really that close to them. He was more of a functionary.
So basically I wasn’t involved because he wasn’t that involved. It was more of a corporate matter. Clark George was their man. Then it turned out, for reasons that aren’t really even that important, that it didn’t work out for Clark George. Then Ralph got the opportunity. Clark was there for the better part of a year.
FROKE: Did you think at all about going with Viacom at the time?
JIMIRRO: There was really no choice. You could have gone to CBS and said, I want another job, but basically it was really the same group of people who were essentially moving across town doing the same thing with the same product. The deal was that they had a long-term distribution deal with CBS for whatever rights they had. Basically that was perceived as an opportunity for us to do what we were doing but to control more of it and to have a greater piece of the action in terms of shares, stock options, and so forth.
FROKE: It was about that time, then, that you began talking with the Disney people. Is that right?
JIMIRRO: I was approached by a man named Rich Irvine who is still a very, very good friend of mine. This would have been in…
FROKE: ’72 or ’73?
JIMIRRO: Yes. This would have been in ’73. Early ’73. Rich really wanted me to come out and run the International Division for Disney. To make a long story short, I just said, “No, I’m not going to do that. The reason is because you’re in California and I’m in New York and I never want to leave New York.”
FROKE: New York was your city.
JIMIRRO: I really love New York. If you worked in my job, coming out to California was a great trip. I came out and stayed at the Beverly Hills Hotel and had a car.
FROKE: Did you get to know Mr. Irvine through some contact overseas?
JIMIRRO: Yes. Through the business. He was an excellent man. I knew enough about Los Angeles to know that it was a great place to visit on a business trip for a couple of days, but who would want to live there. I just really loved being in New York. Finally Rich, who was very, very aggressive, and was pretty good at getting what he wanted said, “I’ll tell you what. You join Disney and you can set up the whole International Division that we’re talking about, in New York. You can stay in New York. New York is after all closer to Europe which is the major market. You can come out to California every few weeks to see us. Essentially, you can have your cake and eat it too.”
Based upon that, I left Viacom and became the head of the International Division that Rich was running for Disney in October of ’73. Disney had an office in New York at 477 Madison Ave. I got myself set up there. I had a new suite of offices. I started a whole new entity in New York working for Disney. My boss was 3,000 miles away.
Then came one of the great examples of timing that I had. You have to have great timing. Eight months after I joined Disney, Rich left. It was not expected that he would leave because he was really one of the golden boys of the company, but he did leave. There was a void there and I was given the opportunity to run that division. This was extremely unusual. Disney was a relatively insular company. I had only been with the company for eight months. To make matters worse I was in New York which probably made them regard me with some suspicion. The Disney people felt that executives should labor there for 15 or 20 years before they get to do anything important.
That’s just the way that company grew up. Yet, because I, in their view was the best person for the job (even though I was viewed probably with some suspicion just because I was new and a New Yorker) they went with me. Eight months after I had joined Disney which was about May of 1974, I was running a division of Disney. At that point I didn’t have any problems moving to California because I recognized that I was already at the point where there were more good people in California in this industry than there were opportunities at the highest levels. I said to myself, “If I give up this opportunity for New York, I may forever be sorry.” At that point, it’s true. There were lots of good people out there and you’ve got to take advantage of great opportunities when they arise. At that point, I had to make a decision about New York. I wasn’t happy about it, but I moved to California.
FROKE: The job within Disney began to expand and grow. From international sales it moved into production and telecommunications.
JIMIRRO: The division that I was running was handling all of Disney’s ancillary activities. In 1974, ancillary activities meant the same thing it means now. Disney was primarily a theatrical company and the ancillary activities represented other outlets for theatrical motion pictures. In those days the ancillaries were not very important: 8mm home movies was never a real big business; nor were 16 mm rentals for clubs and churches and PTA groups; nor was re‑formatting them into educational films.
I was running a division that was essentially on the fringes: Disney primarily produced movies and if we can do something else with them after they’ve had their primary run, which is in the movie theaters, then that activity goes into this division. Then came the VCR. It was defined as ancillary, as were cable and satellite delivered programming. So, with new technologies, by the mid to late ’70s the ancillary activities were not so ancillary anymore.
FROKE: They moved toward the main tent.
JIMIRRO: I was inheriting, because of the virtue of technology, grander opportunities in every sense.
FROKE: In effect what you established, was the home video market for the Disney people.
JIMIRRO: I did that. I started Walt Disney Home Video in 1980. I was its first president. That again was an ancillary activity, except that home video was about to become a very important one. There was a bit of a struggle internally because the Disney people in those days were very provincial. They were a theatrical company. They continued to believe that their main audience was theater goers. They were like a lot of establishment executives in Hollywood, but maybe to a greater extent, because Disney was a relatively insular organization. They looked with a jaundiced eye toward all of these new technologies.
FROKE: Earlier in this discussion, you said that many of the people in California wanted to take all of these cassettes and junk them out in the Pacific.
JIMIRRO: I remember people saying things like “Walt Disney never intended that his movies should be shown on a small screen.” Things like that. “We have to maintain the status quo.” One of the points I would always say in reply was that, though I never knew Walt Disney, I think that he would have just loved this new technology. If history had any predictive value, he would have embraced the new technology and figured out how to be out in front with it. He has certainly been out in front with every other new technology. He was the first Hollywood producer regularly on TV and all of that. There’s every evidence that, had he been around, he would have probably been out in front of all of us, certainly including me.
So there were some very interesting internal battles in those days relating to the threat of new technology. Certain people had been in the theatrical business for 30 or 40 years. They weren’t learning quickly. They weren’t as interested. They were a little confused. What is a VCR, and so forth? I think it’s fair to say this, and I’m not saying this critically, it’s just, that maybe we’ll all get that way as we grow older. They were threatened. The status quo was very comfortable for some people.
FROKE: To pick up another one of your themes, the 8mm and the 16mm in a sense were the antecedents of the VCR. The major difference is that the VCR is a much more people friendly device than your projectors.
JIMIRRO: That’s right. We were in that business from the beginning, with 8mm home movies as an example, was clunky. You’ve got to get out the projector, darken the room. We were selling 8mm reels for $39.95 for eight minutes. That’s why, by the way, I didn’t have these internal problems before the VCR. Because 8mm, everybody knew, wasn’t going to go anywhere. It was a nice little business for Disney but it wasn’t any great threat, whereas the VCR was, simply because, as you say, it’s so much more user-friendly.
FROKE: Did you do some test marketing on Disney home videos before you launched the activity officially in ’80?
JIMIRRO: We actually had done some tests with a company called Fotomat which had made the decision to get into the video business in ’79. That was a big deal because in 1979 there were something like 1,000 or 2,000 video stores in the United States. Fotomat itself had in place 4,000 kiosks. So when Fotomat announced it was going to get into the video business it was exciting because we were about to triple the number of locations in the United States at which people could rent or buy a video cassette.
We liked the Fotomat people. We thought there was good control there for a lot of reasons. We made a deal to license some of our movies to Fotomat. It turned out that it just didn’t work for them so they are not in the business today. It was one of those ideas that simply didn’t pan out. It gave us a little bit of a test and experience in the marketplace, though.
End of Tape 1, Side A
FROKE: This is Side B of the oral history of James Jimirro. There was a rapid change of names of the different companies that you were involved in with Disney during that time period of 1980 to 1985. The name changes seemed to be coming quite frequently. Could you run through those and then identify the context?
JIMIRRO: Are you talking about telecommunications?
FROKE: Yes. Let’s say that you started out with international sales and other ancillary activities. Then the name changes begin to come, culminating in your presidency of the Disney Channel.
JIMIRRO: The ancillary division that I was running from ’74‑’80 (16mm and 8mm etc.) was called the Walt Disney Media Company. That was just a moniker that they had used for many years. With names for the new technology all of Hollywood had a problem. We had people like me running the licensing of programming to pay television and home video. We didn’t know what to call it. One of the silly names for the ancillary activities is non‑theatrical. Everybody hated that name because it was a negative. You identify what you’re doing by saying what you’re not doing. We thought you ought to be able to come up with something positive.
FROKE: We have the same difficulty with continuing education. We call it non‑credit. (Laughter)
JIMIRRO: That just didn’t seem right somehow. I think there was a lot of scurrying around in town to see what we were going to call these new delivery systems. The name telecommunications was emerging. Even that, at the time, seemed like a strange name. A lot of people thought you were going to go over and fix a television set or something, but that did become the name. That division became Walt Disney Telecommunications, which was essentially a term of convenience to encompass video and pay television distribution. That’s really what that was. I became president of Walt Disney Telecommunications. Because home video and the Disney Channel were essentially divisions of telecommunications I was president of Disney Channel, president of Walt Disney Home Video, and president of Walt Disney Telecommunications. Telecommunications was essentially a group. That’s all that was. I was president of Walt Disney 8mm, Walt Disney Non‑Theatrical, Walt Disney Home Video, and the Disney Channel.
FROKE: When did you get the idea of the Disney Channel?
JIMIRRO: In 1977. This was long before we had started home video. It was the ice ages. That is an important question because at the time I was already beginning to license products to existing pay television services. That began to fall into my purview. This was ’76 and ’77. Showtime and HBO were around as early as that. Then I began to say to myself, “There’s going to be a whole new structure for television networks in this country. There’s going to be an opportunity for special interests, or, what I would characterize as significant minorities to be served.” I could see it coming. We were going to break down, for the first time in TV history, the oligarchy of the three television networks. There was going to be a chance for many interests to have their own television networks.
In the context of all that, I had such a strong feeling and a great feeling for what Disney represented and its role. I never believed that Disney could be everything to everybody or be another HBO, but I knew, better than maybe anybody in the world because I worked at that company, the tremendous market out there that would want Disney. I knew about that market. I knew it wasn’t big enough to make Disney a CBS. We could have never survived as a commercial network but in terms of the new economic realities of pay television, there was going to be room for our own television network. There was the technology, there was the channel availability, and there was going to be the economic viability. You didn’t need 20 or 30 million homes like CBS needed. You only needed three or four or five million homes to succeed.
I saw the new world. I actually prepared a very structured presentation for Disney which I presented in May 1977. I had several colleagues helping me on it. There was a man named Art Reynolds. I remember sitting with Art at the swimming pool outside the Fontainebleau Hotel at Miami Beach. We were at a convention there for one of our other little businesses in the winter of 1977‑‑working on this presentation. I had such a sense of that! He was right there with me! The result was that in May we gathered a number of executives, including all the senior management at Disney, and we laid out a proposal for what we were calling at the time the Disney Satellite Network.
You have to understand that in those days we were envisioning nothing like the present scope of the Disney Channel. There was no original programming then. You can remember what it was like. And it would have been so easy then. There was no full satellite imperative at that point. We were proposing a Disney mini‑channel. It would involve maybe three or four movies a week coming out of our library, some of our cartoons on Saturday morning. We’d charge $4.95 for it. In other words, it would be a mini‑service, a perfect complement to an HBO or Showtime.
The presentation was very long and thought out. I talked about the status of the industry at the time. I remember one statistic. There were 1,200,000 pay television subscribers in the United States. You start a presentation like that by doing a survey of the current state of the industry.
FROKE: Your basic and your pay.
JIMIRRO: There were 1,200,000 pay. That’s how early it was. What I was saying was…and I laid out all the alternatives. We could do our own. We could continue license to everybody else who would be more than happy to pay us a lot of money for product. But I was making a case as to why, over the long term, the best course for us was to not take the money from HBO. We would put this little investment in and over the long term, I showed projections as to what could happen, not only financially but in terms of being able to test new products and being able to have a wonderful, continuing, multi‑faceted relationship with American families. All the reasons why. I think it was a terrific presentation. It was well thought out and thorough, and very inexpensive to get in the industry in ’77, there would have been no investment in programming. There would have been a very modest cost of entry. It would have been a lot cheaper than it ended up being.
They said no to me at the time for reasons that I understood. The main one was that they were just in the process of building the EPCOT Project in Florida which ended up costing a billion dollars. The company was quite strained in terms of human and financial resources. I think that senior management felt that it didn’t want to take on another project of the scope of a television network. I should say in retrospect…and it’s always easy to have 20/20 hindsight…that was a big mistake just in terms of financial investment. If we had done it when I suggested it originally in ’77…if we would have put our toe in the water…without a great investment, we would have simply grown with the industry.
FROKE: That was a time when the cable television industry was looking for programming, too.
JIMIRRO: We would have just grown right with it. By the time senior management finally said yes in 1982 there was more competition. We had to look like HBO on Day One. We had to have two satellite transponders. We were coming into a very mature, exciting professional industry. We ended up spending $100,000,000 in cash on that television network in the first year. We spent $44 million for brand new programming, $19 million for satellite transponders on Galaxy. We had the large staff. It was a different ball game to start a new network in April of 1983. As I say, it was much more costly.
There’s another thing I think which I can never prove. I believe if they had accepted my proposal and started the channel in 1977; the Disney Channel would be the second largest pay television network in the country today instead of the third or maybe the fourth. The reason that I say that is this. Shortly after 1977 the big rallying cry was multi‑pay. That’s when cable operators thought, “Let’s sell more than one pay service to subscribers.” Most of them bought Showtime and HBO, two similar services. If, in that period, during ’78,’79 and ’80, there was a Disney Channel, I think we would have beaten out Showtime. I would have been smart enough to say to any cable operator, “Why should you offer HBO and Showtime which at the time were virtually identical services when you can offer HBO (or Showtime) and the Disney Channel, which are really complementary?” I don’t think those two services side‑by‑side would have had a chance to be one and two. I think they would have had to fight it out for number one. We wouldn’t have been number one but we would have been number two.
Now there is some differentiation between those two networks. In those days there wasn’t. They were both buying the same movies. They looked the same. I think we had the most compelling argument of all to say, “Here’s how you get multi‑pay. Show the consumer that you can give him two differentiated services.” We were differentiated by definition. That’s why I believe that we would have been the second largest pay television service. By the time we got into the business in 1983, there was much multi‑pay. By that time Showtime and HBO had begun to differentiate themselves. It was harder to wedge our way in. While the Channel’s doing well, I think that was an opportunity that will be forever missed.
FROKE: During the time period of 1977 to 1980, when the Disney Channel was launched, what were some of your strategies in selling the Disney people on the Disney Channel? Did you go back every year? Periodically?
JIMIRRO: You have to remember that Disney at that time was a very familial and collegial place. It wasn’t as if you had to go make an appointment. Card Walker, who was my boss and a wonderful person, and I, were very close. Donn Tatum, who was the chairman at the time Card was the president, was a great visionary. He and I were close. It was the kind of thing where I just kept talking it up. If I may say so about myself, I had a good balance between being tenacious and strong‑willed about it, while not being, if I can use the expression, a bitch or a pain in the neck. It’s possible to oversell your boss. I always had to remember that while I believed that I was right that we should have a channel, Card had his own imperatives, too. He was trying to get EPCOT built. He had a lot of things on his mind. When you’re trying to sell your boss, you also have to…
FROKE: Recognize what else is going on.
JIMIRRO: Yes. You don’t know everything that he’s got to worry about. I think I did strike a balance. I was a constant advocate but not in a way that was offensive to anybody. During that period of course we were getting into the home video business. While we planned the Channel in 1977, other things were around. The home video business was in ’80, Fotomat in ’79. So there was a lot else going on in my life. I never, of course, ever gave up the idea that we should have a Disney Channel.
FROKE: How did you refine the position on the Disney Channel from the early proposition that you made in 1977 to the actual launch in 1983? In other words what were some of the judgmental decisions that lead to the more costly approach to getting into the market? How did all that come about?
JIMIRRO: It was just the natural evolution of responding to what we’d have to do to be at all competitive.
FROKE: So each year you updated your plan based on what was happening in the cable industry?
JIMIRRO: Exactly. As I said, you go back to ’77. Of course there was no original programming. Nobody had even thought about doing original programming. Then all of a sudden HBO and Showtime started to do some original programming. There used to be one transponder, then there were two transponders. They were on 18 hours a day, then they were on 24. It just became obvious that the opportunities were still there, but more investment was required.
A pay television network in 1982 and ’83, however, was simply a different animal than it was in 1977. Whatever you did, if you wanted to be one, you had to look pretty much like they looked. Now there is another matter that should be mentioned here. You may or may not remember, Marlowe, but there was the whole episode with Westinghouse.
FROKE: Oh, yes. Westinghouse was to be a joint partner initially?
JIMIRRO: Yes. I think a lot of people do not know the real story of that. It’s one that I was the centerpiece of. When we finally convinced Card that we ought to have a pay television service, he somehow wanted to have a partner.
FROKE: Was that to tie in the Westinghouse cable systems? At that time they still had quite a few cable properties.
JIMIRRO: It wasn’t related to that. He believed that he did not want to shoulder the whole financial burden, the whole creative burden. He just believed that it was so big that he wanted to have a partner. That was a very strong inclination that he had. I was unalterably opposed to that. This is as clear as I can make it. I felt that I understood the overwhelming scope and importance of the Disney Channel. That it was totally dependent for its success on qualities and assets and attributes and values that Disney and only Disney could bring to it‑‑from the name to the library to the public franchise, and that there was no reason in the world for our company to share that monumental opportunity with somebody else.
It was as simple as that. We had everything that you could possibly need and the assets that we didn’t have, we could buy. We had the Disney name, the Disney library, and the Disney consumer credibility. It just didn’t seem to me that all this should be shared. That was a schism that was very powerful. Yet Card had his own reasons for disagreeing with that. Actually the service as a partnership was shopped quite a bit. We actually went to HBO and asked if they would like to be a partner with us.
FROKE: That was when you were thinking of it being a segment within a broader programming service.
JIMIRRO: No, we were actually talking about a new, separate service.
FROKE: A totally separate channel.
JIMIRRO: During that period I was doing my duty trying to get for Card, a partnership, but going back to him and saying this is a mistake. I don’t think we should do this. We went to HBO and said, “Would you like to venture in a new service called the Disney Channel. HBO turned us down. Jim Hayworth (from HBO) would later come to me and say (and this is just a little anecdote which is interesting) “This is one of the biggest mistakes we ever made. We should have said yes to you then.”
We went to some others. I think Warner was one and finally to Westinghouse, who said yes. That was a bad day for me because I had been doing my job and shopping for a partner and finally, succeeded. I went back and it was definitely an ambivalent day. I said, “Card I have your partnership, I think this is a mistake.” We then negotiated this deal with Westinghouse for a twenty‑year partnership. We negotiated with Russell Carp, I remember it so well. We’re now talking summer of ’82. Ron Cayo and me. Ron Cayo being a business affairs person would go back to New York and negotiate with Russell. We negotiated this deal in the summer of ’82, often at Russell Carp’s home. Then Russell Carp hurt his foot. We did negotiations in the hospital. It was an ambivalent time. I remember wondering “Why are we doing this?” I’d come back and say, “Why are we giving half of this away. Only Disney can do the Disney Channel.”
By the end of the summer, we had pretty much negotiated the deal and had a handshake, but nothing signed. This was August of 1982. There was another thing I want to mention. One of the big issues that made me crazy in that period, was Westinghouse saying to us that one of the things we’ll have to do as soon as we get this deal signed is figure out what the name of this network is. They were already being a little provincial. This was driving me crazy. Should we call it Carousel, or whatever. I said, “What about calling it the Disney Channel?” They would reply: “Well, why not call it the Westinghouse Channel?” That’s what was going on. That was exactly the reason that I was so opposed to this; the values that our company had. You venture with another company and they feel a little provincial because they want to be equal. They were proud of what they did. This was a great company, but they obviously didn’t have the values for families and kids that our company had. I take nothing away from them. But, the more I heard things like that, the more I said, “These are good people and I like them, but why would we give away half of this network?”
FROKE: And part of the identity.
JIMIRRO: We finally compromised and decided to call it the Disney Channel: a service of Westinghouse and Disney. Westinghouse would get their name first. So during that period, I’ll use the word again, I was ambivalent. I was negotiating the deal because I’m a good soldier, and going back and saying this is really wrong.
For reasons that I can’t understand, at the eleventh hour, after the deal had been negotiated, not signed, I went in to Card one last time. (I’m telling you this story because a lot of people don’t know this story.) I saw a report…I’m jumping ahead…in Business Week later that indicated Westinghouse extricated itself from this deal. As far as I’m concerned I am 100% responsible for this deal falling out even though Card made the final decision. I was the one. (I had a lot of people with me, by the way.)
Anyway, I prepared some final numbers and showed Card some of the projections. I said, “Card, we’re about to sign the deal, but let’s just look at this one more time. Look at what this channel could represent on a worst‑case basis. We’re talking 20 years here. We’re talking Mickey Mouse. We don’t have a partner in Disneyland. Are you sure you want to do this?” Something snapped in him like that. For months and months of his being quite intransigent about it, he said, “I agree with you.”
He called Dan Richie who was on vacation in Colorado. I understand Dan was the second largest land owner in Colorado. He said, “Dan, we have to talk.” Dan came off his vacation, and we had a lunch in a private dining room at the studio. Card at that lunch did not extricate himself from the deal but said the following. He said, “Dan, I just had a second thought on this.” At the time of the deal, everything was going to be 50/50‑‑creative input, control, everything. Card said, “Look, we’re willing to make this deal with you, but we’re not willing to give up creative control.” That was how it went. “We must have complete creative control. We must have complete control of the marketing, any use of our scenes and symbols, programming and characters. We’ll renegotiate the deal so you can provide technical or sales, and we’ll give you a piece of it, but we won’t make it a joint venture.”
If we had gone first to Westinghouse with that deal they might have accepted it, but this was a come down from what they were now anticipating which was a total 50/50 partnership. Dan was a proud man. He said, “Card, I have to think about that.” Dan called back two days later and said, “Card, it’s all or nothing at all. We have to have a 50/50 deal with you or else we’re pulling out of the deal.” Card said, “O.K. so be it.” That was in September of 1982 when I, in the final analysis, was successful at the eleventh hour in extricating ourselves from that arrangement. That’s the true story of how it happened.
FROKE: Have you any idea of what it was that you said in that conversation. What was that something that snapped?
JIMIRRO: I just wonder in retrospect, Marlowe, whether he had those concerns all the time. Card had never worked anywhere but Disney all his life. Nobody in the world knew more about the Disney franchise or the Disney quality or the Disney values and what Disney brings to the table more than Card Walker. Certainly not me. Card was Walt’s right hand man from 1937. It may be that when it came to the moment of truth with that 150 page document in front of him and it said 20 years, 50/50 ownership of the Disney Channel, there may have been something lurking in him all of that time that just snapped.
The thing I showed him at that last meeting was numbers. I remember that. It was a pure financial presentation at that time. I think it was basically him knowing what he knew all the time. By the way, it was an unassailable position if I do say so in retrospect. No business person could look at everything that was going on and run it through a computer and say Disney should give up half the Disney Channel. It would have been a joke, really. Disney had its own niche. It was a family niche. There are certain things that Disney did better than anybody else in the world and was perceived that way by American families. That was what I hated to give up.
FROKE: To break into cable television at that time, you had to have some distribution capabilities. When Westinghouse no longer was a joint partner, you had to have some distribution capability within the cable industry. To whom did you turn then, to make it a viable proposition for Disney as a separate company? In other words who did you court in terms of gaining channel capacity?
JIMIRRO: I remember Card calling me and saying that although we were planning to launch the Channel April 11, 1983, “we don’t have Westinghouse, you’ve lost a little momentum. I think we ought to delay the launch.” I remember saying, “No, we shouldn’t delay the launch.” At the time I felt that we had lost a little credibility. A lot of people were saying, “Are these guys really going to do it?” One of the things you have to remember: just prior to the launch of the Disney Channel, CBS Cable had failed. The Entertainment Channel had failed. That was a joint venture with RCA and Rockefeller Center. There were a lot of cable operators who thought maybe there weren’t going to be any more pay or cable services. That was long before Discovery and Nostalgia and Travel and Weather. This is a time when people were saying, “We’ve had two failures, one by CBS and one by Arthur Taylor and Co. So there were a lot of questions about whether there should be a Disney Channel.
So, Card said maybe we should delay the launch and I said “No, we really have to launch this Channel. We can do it. We can do it, and make it work.” He said, “O.K. If you really believe we can do it, we’ll keep the launch date.” The only thing we did was change the launch date one week to April 18 because we found out later the Academy Awards in 1983 were on April 11 and we didn’t want to compete with them our first night on the air. We did not have any distribution capabilities, Marlowe. We did not have any contacts. We did not have any great, established cable relationships. What we had was something I knew, despite the number of pessimistic people in those days who doubted we could do it better than anybody else in the world. I knew there was an untapped segment of the market out there.
In all of the panoply of services that were being offered at that time, there was a group of people who simply were not being served. These were people who didn’t want gratuitous sex in their homes; they didn’t want violence in their homes. They were enlightened parents who wanted a different kind of programming for their children. That’s something that many people didn’t understand. CBS Cable, whatever it did right or wrong, didn’t serve that market nor did it intend to. The Entertainment Channel, whatever it did, didn’t serve that market. I knew that market was there. Unless you worked at Disney, you might not know that. I knew who those people were. They were the ones who were writing us all those years. They were the ones who were saying, “Thank God for Disney.” I’m not being righteous about this. I’m just saying that I knew that market was there. That’s how I always approached things, from the standpoint of the consumer. I didn’t know how many at the time, whether it was two million or four million or six million, I knew it wasn’t 50 million. But there were certainly several million families out there that were not being served.
You could look at all of the surveys of people who weren’t taking pay services. The first reason people weren’t taking pay services‑‑cable homes were rejecting pay‑‑was they didn’t want sex and violence in their homes. Those people may have been happy to have no pay, but I also know that these were people who were one time cable subscribers and were saying, “There’s nothing on here for me. I don’t want HBO in my home.” Disconnects. Again, I’m not making a judgment about HBO. I’m just saying that I knew about that unserved market.
FROKE: One or two channels, other pay channels had come on that unfortunately labeled cable television as being something that was not necessarily desirable in the home. Fundamentalist churches, for instance, have strong opinions about cable.
JIMIRRO: Anybody who was even an industry observer would say, “Disney can’t make it.” CBS didn’t make it. The Entertainment Channel didn’t make it. But those people were not in the family market, as such. They were more mainstream programmers. They weren’t attuned to that opportunity the way you might be attuned if you had been serving that market all those years, as I had.
FROKE: You still had to deal with the question of channel capacity. You still had to find cable systems to carry the program service. How did you make the arrangement with TCI then? Because if you had not had TCI it would have been much more difficult.
JIMIRRO: I remember exactly how that happened. Somebody else did it. Not me. It is a great story. In the fall, after the separation from Westinghouse, I had gone out to see all the MSOs. It was a way of saying we’re here. We’re going to be on the air and this is what we’re going to do. These are our plans. Get ready for us. We started the process of putting this together in October of 1982. Interestingly enough, seven years ago today, more or less, literally seven years ago today, plus or minus a week, I got a call out of the blue from John Malone. John Malone who I had not seen on that trip called me and said, “Jim, we’re going to support your channel. We want to sign a system wide deal with you. We want to be your first MSO and we’re with you all the way. Our business needs this kind of channel. We need Disney to be part of what we offer. If we’re going to offer Escapade (or whatever used to be the predecessor of Playboy) if we’re going to have R‑rated pictures on HBO, which is fine, we must have Disney. Disney will enable us to round out our offerings so we serve the maximum number of people. We want to be with you.” That’s how that happened. It’s as simple as that.
An enlightened man, who, for whatever reason believed Disney was going to be important. Who knows what his motivations were. He thought there was a customer base out there. He also believed if he had to go to Washington to say anything it would be nice to have Disney as well as other services. John was the one who was forthcoming. He called me out of the blue. Of course that was probably the greatest single day that we had. Here was the biggest cable operator saying we support you. As a matter of fact, when we went several months later to one of the cable shows, we used footage of John Malone saying this is going to be the service that will work because we need this service. Without this service we don’t have a complete cable system in this country.
FROKE: It was about that time some of the leaders of the cable industry were beginning to say the future of cable television rested now in programming and not necessarily with technology distribution. Cable television had to be more than simply distribution capability. To the best of your knowledge Malone was following the development of the Disney Channel through the trade press as compared to you or your staff being on his doorstep selling it?
JIMIRRO: We had gone out to TCI. We were talking with J.C. Sparkman, and John Charlton, I guess, was there at the time. But we had never really met with John Malone himself.
FROKE: That’s an amazing story.
JIMIRRO: Imagine sitting in your office. You get a call from John Malone. He was just unequivocal about it. He said, “We’re with you.”
FROKE: And he wasn’t on his boat either. Going back, let’s say now that distribution is assured. Certainly that did not take place first, what were some of the things you did to program the Channel? How did you put in place a programming philosophy?
JIMIRRO: First it was important to know who did it. This is another aspect I think is very important about the Channel. I never conceived the Channel as having to be some big Hollywood infrastructure. I had a number of extraordinary people around me. I would say from 1974 until this period, I had really developed a strong group of people, many of whom had worked in educational films, believe it or not. Many had done all other kinds of programming for me. I had this wonderful brain trust of programming people, many of whom, only by coincidence, were women. Many of whom were ex‑school teachers, and all of whom were very bright. Peggy Christianson, Judy Rothman, Laurie Levitt, Pam Hansen. These are people who had worked for me since the mid‑1970s. These people became the programming staff of the Disney Channel.
There’s a lesson in that in terms of how I function. My inclination wasn’t to go to the Hollywood community and hire some “heavyweight” person for an enormous amount of money, but rather to go with our home‑grown people who were conscientious and committed and dedicated and who understood what our audience expected of us, which was so important for Disney. People had a certain expectation.
You make it in business by serving people in terms of their expectations. Peggy Christianson, ex‑school teacher, ex‑producer of educational films, and bright as a penny, became vice president of programming for the Disney Channel. She put together this brain trust of people. They developed most of the programming.
We made a decision early on that the Disney Channel was going to be programmed on three legs. One third of it would come from the existing Disney library. It would have features and cartoons and short subjects. One third of it would be acquired programming from around the world. And one third of it would be original programming. We believed that over the long run, the original programming would be the most important. We would get people to come to the Disney Channel because of the Disney library‑‑Mickey Mouse cartoons, and “Old Yeller” and feature films, and so forth. Eventually we would have to wean them onto our new programming due to the fact that our library was obviously finite. Our original programming was going to be the most important over the long term.
We ended up developing most of the original programming ourselves. Peggy and her people did it. We ended up signing on the air with thirteen original series’ of programs. We spent $44 million on original programming in the first year of that channel. All of it was developed by a brain trust of people who had been Disney employees. In no case, outsiders. They were people who had grown up with the company, who I trusted, and with whom I had a wonderful relationship, and who were just elevated to this task. That’s what’s so interesting about it. We got that channel on the air in record speed, six months, and yet didn’t use any of the expected people. We used our own home‑grown people, many of whom, I would venture to say, could not have gotten jobs that important elsewhere in the industry. I think if Peggy had gone out in 1982, she might have been hired as a programming administrative assistant at HBO and would not have been perceived as somebody who could run the programming department of a network. Again, sometimes you can do more with home‑grown dedicated, committed, people than with others who may have a different perception of themselves within the community.
FROKE: What were some of the programs you did in the first year in the original production category?
JIMIRRO: We did two children’s programming series, both of which are still running on the Disney Channel and both of which continue to be, in my view, the most important original programming series that were ever done for the Channel. One is called “Welcome to Pooh Corner.” The other one is “Dumbo’s Circus.” “Welcome to Pooh Corner” was on the air on Day One. We had 120 half‑hours of that. That continues to be a mainstay of the Channel. A puppetronic show based on the Pooh characters. We liked “Welcome to Pooh Corner” so much, I said, “Peggy, we ought to do another one of those. It’s a great thing. We can run it forever.” We went back to the same producer, Frank Brandt, and said, “Let’s do another one.” And they came up with the idea of “Dumbo’s Circus” based on the Dumbo characters. Both of those will run forever on the Channel.
FROKE: These were independent producers who put these programs together?
JIMIRRO: We used a man named Frank Brandt. He’s done a lot of work for Disney over the years. That was a hand‑in‑glove arrangement between Peggy and her people and Frank Brandt and his production staff. Frank is a uniquely committed producer of children’s programming who does things with uncommon love and care and affection, and it shows in the program. Those two shows represented important ones.
Then…another example…we wanted to tie‑in with EPCOT. The whole idea of synergy was important for the Channel. We did a program on Day One called “EPCOT Magazine” which was a daily half‑hour that actually originated from Walt Disney World in Florida. That was our conception. It was done by Bob Hillier, a producer hired by Peggy and her people to do this show. The other shows were all mainly coming out of the Disney experience. For instance, one of the great Disney songs is “When You Wish Upon a Star.” They came up with an idea of “When You Wish Upon a Star” where we would feature young kids wishing something and making that wish come true on the air. Whether that wish was to ride in a helicopter or see what it’s like to be on an aircraft carrier, or whatever. That was done by a man named Arnold Shapiro.
We did a show called “Contraptions” which was a game show that used segments from Disney animated films like “Bambi” and “Snow White” which again was able to be an original show yet draw from material that was uniquely Disney. We had to do an exercise show called “Mousercise.” We did “Mousercise” with Bob Banner, one of the great television producers of all time, really. He has been producing since the early years. Bob did “Mousercise.”
FROKE: He did the Waring programs that were on television in the early years.
JIMIRRO: Exactly. He was an early entry. We did another show that I loved. Again, this was Peggy coming up with the idea. I just loved this show. It’s called “You and Me, Kid.” It was a show designed to allow parents and their kids be interactive with the show. If a parent and child wanted to spend quality time together they could spend time in front of the Disney Channel with games and stories and interactivities between the two. It was a chance for Disney to be at its best. To bring a mother or a father or a grandparent together with a child for a half‑hour in a quality period. I used to cry when I’d see that show.
That’s when I knew the Channel was going to work. Nobody else was going to do this. This was something that many families wanted and were not getting in the marketplace. That exemplified why I always knew this was a different kind of pay service. It had nothing to do with earlier failures that were not serving this particular market. Those were some of the shows we did.
FROKE: With your experience in the international market, you probably knew some of the contact people in other countries to help in acquisitions, a second category of programming.
JIMIRRO: Not only in terms of acquisition but also in terms of co‑production. We did a lot of co‑production at the Disney Channel. For instance, we did a Western series called “Five Mile Creek” based on a Louis L’Amour book. “Five Mile Creek” was actually done in Australia along with Channel 9 down there as a co‑production with a part American and part Australian cast. With Michael Hirsch at Nelvana Productions in Canada, we co‑produced a series called “The Edison Twins” which is still running on the Disney Channel. With another Canadian organization in Vancouver we co‑produced a series called “Danger Bay.” It was a dramatic action series with kind of a scientific underpinning to it. It had some educational value. We produced a movie in Spain with an English producer; Harry Towers called “Black Arrow,” which is based on a Robert Louis Stevenson book. There was a lot of international co‑production going on at that channel, which was very, very exciting.
FROKE: The third major category‑‑programming from the Disney library: you had full access to everything that was in the library?
JIMIRRO: No, again going back to those theatrical people. They were fairly provincial. We had access to all the cartoons and we had access to almost all of the live action movies. When it came to the so‑called family jewels, the 23 or 24 animated classics like “Bambi,” “Snow White” and “101 Dalmatians,” we really didn’t have much access. There was some concern about, (I think this was legitimate) taping off‑the‑air and damaging theatrical reissuing and all that. That has lightened up considerably with the new Disney management. In those days we were relegated to everything but the top echelon of programming. There was still enough, certainly with the cartoons. We did run “Mary Poppins,” and “Tron” and “The Black Hole,” and so forth. There was enough to give viewers a little taste of the “crème de la crème” of Disney although we didn’t have unfettered access to it.
FROKE: You had the opportunity to promote specials by using “Mary Poppins” and a few others.
FROKE: On the pay channel arrangement, the programmers get a percentage of the income and the distributors get a percentage of the income. What types of deals did you cut with the cable operators initially?
JIMIRRO: The initial deals were roughly in the range of one third to two thirds. That’s really what it was, plus or minus two or three percent. We were getting about a third of the take. If the Disney Channel were being sold for $10 we were netting about $3.33. That’s pretty much the way it works. In retrospect I think as an industry standard that’s an unfair cut, I think it should be more like 50/50. But, it grew up that way. The reason I think it was unfair is that the premise originally was that the cable operator was going to do a lot of the marketing. As it turns out the cable operators didn’t do any of the marketing. We did it all. We had to program, create the service and do all the promotion for it. Yet we’re still only getting a third. I think that was part of the imbalance. I think that’s an industry imbalance. It’s difficult for any one product to change the essential terms.
FROKE: You had to create all of the promotional materials also.
JIMIRRO: Yes. And, in that regard, the other thing that we should mention at this point is The Disney Channel Magazine. That happened to be my idea and I think one of the most important ideas we had ever had. I’ll tell you where that came from. We used to do educational films in the ’70s. One of the elements we always included‑‑if we did an educational film on how to get to school safely, for example‑‑would always be a teacher’s guide. So, I began to understand the role of printed material along with audio‑visual communication that supported that communication. It was as simple as that. I said, “Well, it might be great if we could have a magazine to enhance the experience of the Channel. If there were games and activities and program information, follow‑ups, parent’s guide. Watch the show and there might be some things for you to talk about around the dinner table. Wouldn’t that really make the service much more meaningful and much more beneficial?
The premise was that anything we could do to create more subscriber value would aid retention and help acquire new subscribers. A lot of people were negative about that magazine because it was expensive. The magazine ended up costing about 32 or 33 cents a subscriber. When you’re only getting $3 or $4 that’s a lot of money. I remember being on a panel in December of 1982 with Paul Klein. Klein was running something or other, maybe the Playboy Channel. Paul, who was never one to be reticent said, “You can’t afford that magazine.” I said, “We can’t afford not to, Paul.”
End of Tape 1, Side B
FROKE: This is Tape 2 Side A of the oral history of James Jimirro. Because television has a tendency to be transitory…it’s here and then gone…you almost need the print material to make people believe that yes, it is real.
JIMIRRO: The magazine was an exciting concept. Again, I should tell you that that magazine was created not by me recruiting someone who had been the editor of Time magazine or bringing in an established person, but rather by young and enthusiastic people who had been working for me for several years. Elaine Overby was the editor. Linda Palmer was the publisher. They were just young Disney hands. They got that magazine done. The magazine was a real crunch because, while we had to launch the Channel April 18, ’83, in order to promote and get the magazine distributed, we had to have the first issue completed by February 18. It was certainly early to mid‑February. There really was a tremendous time problem. Yet they got that first issue out and got millions of them printed.
It was just remarkable. After I came up with the idea of that magazine I read something in a marketing book that essentially reflected my thinking. In marketing, the most exciting thing you can do is not just sell somebody or communicate with somebody, but to also have a relationship with them. If you can create a relationship with a customer or a constituency, then you’ve achieved the highest level of marketing. That’s exactly what that magazine was intended to do. It was intended to draw those consumers into a relationship with the Disney Channel and help complete the entire concept I had for that channel. Rather than having it be like an august mass medium, like for instance NBC, with essentially one‑way communication, I envisioned, because of the friendly, congenial image of Disney, that we should have a more participatory, interactive, involved relationship with our customers. People who love Disney would want to feel part of that channel. We did a lot of different things to create a different kind of relationship, almost an interpersonal relationship.
People would say to me, “If that’s a good idea, why doesn’t HBO do it?” My response was, “It’s not a question of a good or bad idea, it’s a question of appropriate idea.” HBO couldn’t do that and shouldn’t because nobody feels about HBO the way they do about Disney. What you need to do when you’re creating a product is use whatever particular assets and values you have. Disney is not intrinsically better or worse than any other institution. It’s just what it is. That magazine and other things we did on the air were all designed to create a relationship with people which was different from Time magazine or CBS. Disney was different. I think that all worked in terms of subscriber retention or satisfaction.
FROKE: Did you address the magazine primarily to parents or to children or to both?
JIMIRRO: Exactly to both. What we had was a magazine for parents with a pull‑out kids’ section. That was the whole idea. The parents could read it and do whatever they would with it but then there was a section “Just for Kids.” That was the section that had features like connect the dots, cut‑outs and make your own Christmas tree at Christmas, and all kinds of activities. It was just for the kids, separated out.
FROKE: In a sense it mirrored the one program that you put together that brought the kids and the parents together.
JIMIRRO: Yes. You know, it’s an interesting thing. When I left the Disney Channel, naturally new management would come in and take a look at everything. In fact one of the proudest realities in my life was that, as the new people came in, they didn’t change anything really. One of the things they were concerned about was the magazine. They said, “Gee it costs 35 cents. We’d better look at this and see if we should spend that amount of money. If we didn’t publish that magazine, we could save a lot of money.” They went out and spent, I think, quite a bit of money doing research on the value of The Disney Channel Magazine and concluded that The Disney Channel Magazine was one of the most important parts of that service. We knew it all the time but they did some research that proved it.
FROKE: Was the magazine solely a marketing strategy or did you also sell it?
JIMIRRO: The answer was no and no. It was not only a marketing strategy but we never sold the magazine. The idea was to produce revenues by getting advertisers for the magazine. That wasn’t the primary idea. I never said it should be a profit center, but I also felt that if it could get enough good circulation and readership we might be able to help pay for the magazine or maybe pay for it entirely.
That’s exactly what happened. Slowly but surely, as we got three, four, five million subscribers. That’s a pretty big magazine. That magazine has a bigger circulation than Time or Newsweek. It became very attractive to advertisers so that there’s a chance to at least recoup some of the cost of that magazine, which is now, of course, happening. We also would sell merchandise in the magazine. It was a wonderful way to sell some merchandise. I want to point out that those were always ancillary activities. It was always intended first to enhance the value of the service and be part of the service. We were willing to pay 35 cents a subscriber to do that. The fact that we could lay off some of that and sell some merchandise was an important afterthought, but indeed just an afterthought.
FROKE: In a two to three year period it’s rather amazing that the effort became profitable. The Channel broke even by 1985. Was there ever any pressure within the company during those two or three years to discontinue because of the deficit? If I recall I read someplace that during the first year you ran $55 million in the red, so to speak.
JIMIRRO: We were never off our plan, and that’s the happy truth. We were never off our plan.
FROKE: You said three years?
JIMIRRO: No, I think it was two years and two million. Two years and two million had us to March of ’85. The fact of the matter is that we broke even with the Disney Channel with 1,800,000 subscribers in January ’85. We needed 200,000 fewer subscribers and about three months less. We announced break even in March of ’85. I still remember it. I remember we had a press conference at the Beverly Hills Hotel to announce break even. We actually broke even in January of ’85. The reason we didn’t announce it then was because the shareholders meeting was coming up in February of ’85 and there was lots of news going around. I felt that we should have that announcement separated out in a way. I prevailed upon my bosses to just hold off so we would be clear of all the other exciting things that were being announced, and they agreed.
We announced it in March, but we broke even in January of ’85. The losses up until that time were anticipated losses, so there was never any pressure. Day‑to‑day there were enormous problems of course in running something of that scope, but it was never off target so it was never a problem.
FROKE: You were getting positive feedback from the corporate executives during the time, too.
JIMIRRO: Just think, you have that initial growth period. You’re getting new subscribers all the time, new cable systems all the time and new credibility. I remember little victories when the Disney Channel came on the air. Every time it was announced or mentioned in the paper, reporters would say, “The Disney Channel‑‑Disney’s cable network.” I remember the first time I read a report and it just said the Disney Channel and the reporter felt he didn’t have to describe what it was. It was a little bit of coming of age. Getting listings was another victory. TV Guide wouldn’t list the Disney Channel for the first few months because we didn’t have enough subscribers. I said, “Boy that really seems wrong.” Then they showed me something. With 17 million circulation it would cost TV Guide $40,000 a year, or whatever it was, maybe a week, to list a new service. So it was a big deal for them, but we had to fight those battles market by market to get enough subscribers and to get enough credibility to get listed. Those are the exciting things about starting. Then I’d be in St. Louis and I’d pick up the paper and the Disney Channel would be in the listings. We had enough subscribers.
Now it’s obvious that Disney Channel is a fact of life. They list it everywhere but those were the victories along the way. You’d go into a market and you wouldn’t see the Disney Channel listed. You’d say, “Why can’t we be listed?” Well, you didn’t have enough subscribers and you’d just use up the ink. When you’re going through that, sure you become a little impatient and want it to happen faster. But in retrospect, it happened pretty much on schedule. That’s the reality of being an entrepreneur. You’ve got to wait for successes as they unfold rather than just have them be a fact of life.
FROKE: Breaking even was a boon to the cable television industry, also. During that time period, as you mentioned earlier, there were a number of programming efforts that were going belly up in cable TV. There were a number of people in the early 1980s who were saying, “Maybe this is coming to an end now. The cable business is sick.” When you came on with your profit announcement it really gave a shot in the arm for the rest of the programming side of cable.
JIMIRRO: Of course. It’s interesting, on a broader view, that cable programming then was at the beginning, rather than the end. You never know. I’m not sure why I was particularly this way but somebody once characterized me as “declarative.” Everybody knew that it was two million subscribers to break even. Everybody knew we had said we were going to get there by the spring of ’85. I’m not sure why we were so declarative. Maybe it was my way of wanting to set clear goals for our employees. We were declarative, so when we did it, it became even more interesting because we had stated our goal.
By the way, we did have a tremendous esprit de corps at the Disney Channel. Everybody knew about the two million. We had a big chart in the lobby just like the old Community Chest charts. We’d show the two million break even. And if we had 1.3 million, a line would go up; and 1.4 million, the line would go up so that everybody at that channel from the executives to the secretaries to the clerical people knew that we needed two million. And that was important. The people had a feeling of being part of a broader goal than simply doing their own job. That was great spirit there.
FROKE: As you talk about the success that you realized in cable, it brings back a moment of reminiscing which links you back to Penn State again. At about that time, we were meeting with the cable television industry to establish a Cable Television Museum at Penn State. The Pennsylvania cable industry had been very, very helpful at Penn State in a wide variety of ways like helping us organize a statewide network we call PENNARAMA which is a statewide educational network. In the one step of taking a broader perspective of our School of Journalism and the radio ‑ television instructional program at the University, the new president who came into Penn State at about that time, Dr. Jordan, wanted to see a School of Communications or a College of Communications established. He asked if I would work on the preliminary organization.
Cable was one of the main areas I wanted to see introduced in the curriculum in a broader way. You then were one of the advisers that came in. George Barco was one of the advisers that came in. Jim Mooney was one of the advisers from NCTA that came in. Something happened in a relatively short period of time. You were at Penn State and we had some real nice conversations. You had been named a distinguished alumnus of the University. Then I saw you out at the National Cable Television Show in Las Vegas, I believe it was. A short while later I read in the trade press that you were no longer president of the Disney Channel. Can you tell me what happened?
JIMIRRO: As you know, Disney had a management change in September of ’84. I had been at Disney from ’73. The new management came in. They were very good to me. In fact, there’s an interesting anecdote. The Disney Channel office was off the Disney studio lot, as we just had too many people to stay on the lot. Michael Eisner, who was the new chairman of Disney, really didn’t know where anybody was of course. I guess Michael Eisner had known a little bit about me since he was running Paramount. I think he had reason to think I was an O.K. person. I’m not exactly sure why.
On a Thursday, his fourth day there, he said, “Can you come over to my office, I want to talk to you?” He didn’t know that I was three miles away nor did it matter because he was the boss anyway. So I got in my car and drove over there and was in his office in ten minutes. He was sitting there with Frank Wells, and he said, “You’re the first person at Disney we want to stay. We want you to stay.” His syntax is off, but that’s how he said it. “We want you to sign a seven year contract which is the maximum allowable by California law and we want you to be part of this new team.” I said, “Well I love this company and I’ve been here a long time and I’d like to do that, especially if the Channel is about to break even. It may break even next year. I’ve worked ten years of my life on that channel.”
So we had a really great honeymoon period. Even more so because Eisner was a man who wanted to know so much. He was obviously curious and anyone who is effective in life, in my view, is curious. Michael wanted to know everything about Disney. He was trying to grab hold of this new corporation he was running. I was one of the persons he glommed on in that regard.
We had a press conference in New York with Chuck Dolan; I think in October, right after Eisner got there. That was when we announced the long‑term distribution deal with Cablevision. I said to Michael, “Would you like to come back to this press conference? It would be great to have you there. It would show your faith in the Disney Channel and it would be interesting for you as well.” He said, “Yeah, I’ll come back.” So Eisner came back for this press conference. My plan was to go from Los Angeles to this press conference in New York and then over to a convention I had to attend in Europe. Eisner was going to go to the press conference and back to L.A. I had two days between the press conference and this European convention. Michael said, “You’ve got to go back to Los Angeles with me. I’ve got to talk to you.” I said, “What? I’ve got to be in Europe.” He said, “Come back and you can just fly from Los Angeles. It’s a perfect opportunity for us to talk.” What was going on was that this was a chance for him to spend six hours just picking my brain because he wanted to know so many things. Naturally, him being the boss, I said “Of course.” I got on the plane, a Regent Air, which is almost a semi‑private plane. For six hours we just talked and talked. And he was actually saying, “What about this guy? What about that guy?” You know ‑ asking me to help him evaluate everything. Just trying to collect all this information. I was one of his key purveyors of that information. We had those six hours and another hour to the airport. I said good‑bye, got on a plane and went all the way over to Europe.
That was how close I was with him. Actually I was happy to do it because, if I had been in the same situation, I also would have wanted to know everything. If I found a person I thought I could trust and believe, I’d want to spend a lot of time asking him so many things.
In about February of ’85, Eisner and Wells, because they’re strong people, began to feel the confidence they didn’t feel at first; they thought they were in charge and they knew what they had. They began to get more and more involved in things, including the Disney Channel. That bothered me a lot. I didn’t like the way they were meddling. That’s the word I used, although acknowledging they had every right to do it. I want to make that very clear. Somebody once said to me, “He may not always be right, but he’s always the boss.” I really believe that. I think one of the reasons I’ve been successful in corporations is because I may be a strong person and have a lot of ideas, but I’m never unaware of the role that the boss plays. I was running the Disney Channel but when my boss needed something, that was my first obligation. That’s just the way it is. You should always demonstrate respect for your boss and if you can’t, you ought to leave. That’s how I feel. That doesn’t mean you’re weak, it just means you try to support your boss.
It was their company at that time. They certainly were going to run it differently. I had had a tremendous level of autonomy within that company, more than one would normally expect in a large corporation, and I was used to it. When they began to become involved in the Channel, I would respond with one of two varying responses. Sometimes I’d wake up and say, “Let them be involved and let them do what they want to do. I’m president of the Disney Channel. I’m making a lot of money. I’ve got some status. If they want to run it their way, I could just sit here and do whatever I do and so be it.” Other days I’d wake up and say, “This is not right. I created the idea of this thing. I’ve worked so hard on it, I really should be able to continue to run it.”
Always knowing there was no blame in this, slowly but surely my own inclination was that it was bothering me too much to live that way. And that’s what was going on. It took three or four or five months for me to come to the ultimate realization that it was too unpleasant to have what I characterize as interference, but again, by people who had every right to interfere. I had been too used to having autonomy. I had been too spoiled, or whatever the word is.
Another point: we’re all living out our own styles and personalities. I happen to be a person who happens to work better with maximum freedom. J2 COMMUNICATIONS is ideal for me because I have only a board that I report to. On a day‑to‑day basis I have total autonomy. I had the same level of autonomy at the Disney Channel, even though I was working within a large multi‑national corporation. I had that much autonomy. I just thrive on it. It’s just what works for me. It’s just my own personality. That’s essentially what happened. My leaving there was for exactly the reason that 99% of people in senior positions leave…because of a chemistry problem or a style problem. So many executives, when that happens, end up blaming or having bitterness. That’s always so inappropriate. It’s just the luck of the draw. It’s just how people mesh (or don’t mesh) together.
That’s the reason for the decision. I don’t look back on it except philosophically; it was just the way it worked. I certainly had a great run there but I’ve never had any regrets. If I ever think, “Well maybe I should have stuck it out,” then I remember certain instances and how they gnawed at me. You might think, “Gee whiz, I gave up a pretty good thing there. I don’t think that now because this new company is so rewarding. You think, “Did I make a mistake?” To handle that, you think not about the broad view but about days when you just went home being so unhappy and frustrated, or when you remember those specifics. You realize you didn’t make a mistake. You don’t want to gloss over that when you’re going through that kind of hell. And again I say that without blame. It’s very difficult to live that way no matter what kind of status or money you’re making.
FROKE: What were some of the decisions that were being made by Eisner that particularly bothered you? What is the programming philosophy?
JIMIRRO: Frank Wells was actually more involved in the problem than Eisner. MGM had come to us wanting to license a substantial part of their library to the Disney Channel. That was one of the most exciting opportunities we could have ever had. One problem we had was that we lost much of our viewership at night. I began to understand very early on that we had to create two channels there, one for the kids during the day and one for the parents at night. That was a very early on concept I had. The MGM library was a perfect way to do that. Because it was a fairly big deal, I got these guys involved in it. Essentially, Frank Wells got so involved in that deal that he ended up blowing it. I won’t go into the detail. But that’s literally what happened. Like a lot of aggressive people, he got greedy. We had a very good deal and he wanted just a little bit more. He pushed MGM over the line and they said, “We can’t do it.” And we lost that deal. Losing that, we also lost a great opportunity to establish evenings as a “second network” and also maybe keep viewers as subscribers even after their kids had grown up because they had gotten used to the quality programming at night.
FROKE: It gave you a practical way of implementing audience flow within the total programming.
JIMIRRO: We actually had a whole campaign: Two Channels in One. Things like that. MGM would have been the product. It would have just been fantastic. It would also have changed the course of entertainment history. MGM wouldn’t have been sold for the same amount of money it was sold for. All the pay‑TV licenses would have been gone because Disney would have had them. There was a man named Frank Roth who was trying to put that deal together with us at the time and a man named Sid Sapsowitz. Frank, in my view, hurt us a lot and maybe shouldn’t have been involved with the negotiations. He is a very aggressive man who likes to get that last peck in. That’s good, but if you push too far, you might end up losing the whole ball of wax. That’s one example of specifics.
We were, at the time, trying to sell the Disney Channel in Canada. That was a very complicated situation because the Canadian people wanted the Disney Channel but the Canadian authorities and Canadian programming and entertainment infrastructure didn’t want it because they didn’t like the idea of Americans coming in there and pre‑empting Canadian programming, especially for young people. It was a real political hot potato that I was trying to work through by going to Ottawa and talking to the CRTC, the Canadian Radio and Television Commission. Frank got involved with that and had a lot of ideas that ended up getting in the way. That was another one.
Again, those were difficult things to live through at the time. A lot of the problems were really more picky, things like fighting with your husband or wife and thinking, “Why are we spending so much time on this.” Maybe these things would have disappeared anyway, but they tend to be debilitating at the time when you are living through them.
FROKE: Did you have any face‑to‑face meetings with Eisner to talk about them, the separation from the company?
JIMIRRO: I actually had a face‑to‑face meeting with Frank. At that time Frank had carved out little territories for himself. The Channel was one of them and outdoor recreation was another. I had a face to face meeting with him. Subsequent to that meeting, they did try to get me to stay. I remember one little anecdote. Frank was trying to get me to stay and he’d called me over to his office, there were three or four people in the office. Just as I walked in, they left. Jeffrey Katzenberg was there, and Eisner and I think Rich Frank. There was a $50 bill on the cocktail table. He said, “You know what that is?” I said, “What?” He said, “I bet those guys $50 I could get you to stay.” I said, “No, I don’t think so.”
That’s what was going on in that time. We ended up parting quite amicably although later there were some disputes with respect to my severance package and so forth. To realize that you made the right decision you have to think of specific events where you’d just be eaten up, for whatever reason.
FROKE: In perspective, you have behind you the creation of one of the gems of cable programming. You know that the Disney Channel was your inspiration and you know the formative period was yours and you have a great sense of accomplishment in getting it to the American people.
JIMIRRO: I think that’s right and I don’t mind admitting that because I am proud of it. The Disney Channel was a collaborative effort of lots of wonderful people but I think they would all acknowledge that if it weren’t for me, there wouldn’t be a Disney Channel and I don’t mind acknowledging I’m proud of that, taking it through the company and getting it on the air. If I had personally decided that it wasn’t a priority, there certainly wouldn’t have been a Disney Channel. If there hadn’t been the Disney Channel idea when I was there to create it, at that point the idea would have just gone away and that would have been that. I agree with that, Marlowe. To me it’s something that will always be a legacy for me. It’s something about which I’m very proud.
FROKE: After you left the Disney organization, how long did it take you to decide that you really wanted to be your own boss and create your own company and establish J2?
JIMIRRO: That’s an interesting question, in view of the fact that I had been at the radio station for slightly less than two years, at CBS for eight years, Disney for 14. I was a company man. Only three employers in all those years. When I left Disney it was fairly well publicized. I kept getting calls out of the blue from investment bankers in New York.
I had never thought of starting my own company. At the time the bankers were saying there’s a lot more money around than there is management‑‑there’s a lot of money for people like you who want to start your own company. I had never thought about it. Then a strange thing happened while I started talking to some of these financiers. I remember the following.
I went into the office in New York of a key CBS executive who was trying to get me to work for CBS. I walked into his office and I was absolutely put off by what I saw. What he was doing was essentially what I had been doing all my life, which was being an executive for an entertainment corporation. And yet what I saw in walking down all those aisles, secretaries all over the place, and finally getting to his corner office, and seeing his secretary, and being ushered to his office, and looking at him. I wasn’t at one with that.
It was the most strange phenomenon. I said, “I don’t want to do that.” It seemed quite repugnant to me. I think one of the reasons was that I had never been that. I really wasn’t in a corporate environment, for Disney was so familial, and I had so much autonomy there. I realized that situation could never come again. The likelihood of being in a corporation that big with those kinds of resources and still being so loose and free, couldn’t come. He looked like a little ant to me. It was just a reaction. You know how kids are. “That’s where I want to be. Look at that office.”
Of course, this is the very building I had coveted in 1967. I had an office smaller than his, but the same environment. It’s just that something in me changed. That impulsive and intuitive feeling, coupled with the bankers and investment people in New York, made me feel as if I could really give this a try. That’s how I made the decision to begin J2.
We ended up signing on with an investment banking firm called Furman Selz in New York. They took us public. We had an initial public offering. That meant we were able to raise capital from the public, which was unusual because we didn’t have any real assets at the time. We had me and a couple of colleagues and some ideas, but we didn’t have an actual asset base which is usually identified with public offerings. At the time video was still a go‑go industry and people were buying management and putting their money on people so we had a successful public offering. It consummated in October, 1986 with a new over‑the‑counter stock, J2. (J TWO)
FROKE: Could you describe the types of productions you are involved in now as well as the home video operations?
JIMIRRO: By way of background, one of the things I believe is that J2 is for me, the perfect culmination. Every memo that I’ve ever written, every meeting that I’ve ever had, every telephone call that I ever took, all of those years, was preparing me for J2. That’s what’s so rewarding about it. It’s a perfect extension of whatever I have in my background, whatever I have in my experience.
FROKE: I was talking with one of your friends not too long ago who said even in your Syracuse days, there was a certain amount of J2 that was going around. This friend of yours sent you a note, I believe, which he had addressed to J2.
JIMIRRO: Jim Fellows.
JIMIRRO: This is amazing. He just gave me that last week. It was just amazing to see that paper signed, “J2 Syracuse.” That’s what’s so wonderful about J2, this flow out of everything that had gone before.
Basically what we do at J2 is what I have always done, which is produce and distribute programming. That’s not too simplistic. That’s what we did at the Disney Channel‑‑the production or acquisition, and distribution of programming. Whether you distribute it through video stores or cable or theaters, it’s all essentially the same. This is one of the things I mean when I say there isn’t any difference among businesses. If there’s any difference between a pay television network and a home video distribution system, and a theatrical or television network or television station, I don’t know what it is. The players change, some of the terminology changes, or you go to different conventions and read different newsletters. If you go to the NCTA or the Western Show this week or VSDA, it’s the same thing. The video store and the theatrical exhibitor and the cable system and the suppliers are all the same. They’re fighting the same battles, have the same suspicions but they’re both partners and adversaries.
All of those things are the same. I cavalierly sum it up; there are only five things going on in the world. If you can figure out what they are, you can essentially do everything, career‑wise. I’m talking about business which I think is fairly simple, I’m not talking about rocket science or brain surgery. Business to me seems to be relatively simple from one to the other.
So that’s what we do with J2: produce and distribute programs. We do a variety of projects. We have Tim Conway in the most popular comedy video of all time. We do sports programming. We have a new sports project that brings together for the first time in history five heavyweight boxing champions: Muhammad Ali, Ken Norton, Joe Frazier, Larry Holmes, and George Foreman. They reminisce about their great careers and some of the agonies and ecstasies they had through the years. Their conversation is overlaid with archival footage. It’s an extraordinary retrospective on what’s probably the most interesting period in boxing history.
We have a video called “Teen Steam” with Alyssa Milano who is, by any measure, the number one TV teen star in the country. We have a music video with Elton John. It was done with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra down under in Australia. We’ve got some extraordinary children’s programming, including “The Mother Goose Video Treasury” which was done by Frank Brandt who did “Welcome to Pooh Corner” and “Dumbo’s Circus” at the Disney Channel.
We’re doing a brand new children’s video series with Debby Boone called “Debby Boone’s Hug‑a‑Long Songs.” It is based on a book which she wrote called Bedtime Hugs for Little Ones. It sold 100,000 copies plus. I think it’s an extraordinary video, again creating the same kind of values I believe in. We’ll be doing something for children and parents which maybe will enrich their lives or better their lives and perhaps encourage them to watch television together.
I had a great experience with Debby Boone. I’ve had it before. It’s a very personal one. When I first joined Disney, I’d hear somebody singing “When You Wish Upon a Star.” I’d be sitting in a screening room welling up and crying because it was so wonderful to be part of something like that where people care and you’re making a difference in people’s lives and giving them good entertainment. Yet at Disney that was essentially something I inherited. I was listening to Debby Boone singing some of the songs, “I Think You’re Growing Up,” or “Hugs,” or “I Love You Just as You Are.” Every time I play those songs I’m welling up and crying again. I’m a sentimental person in that sense.
My point is that it’s so satisfying to be able to create something of your own which is just as moving and important, and you can feel just as much pride in and feel that it’s going to make a difference in people’s lives for three, four, five and six year old kids. That’s an example of the kind of gratification I’m having right now, doing, hopefully, quality programs of which I’ve just given you several examples.
FROKE: Do you ever think about establishing another cable programming channel?
JIMIRRO: I haven’t got an idea for one. But there’s one for sale now which I would like to buy. I’m hopeful that it’ll happen because I’d love to get back into that business. It’s a channel that would be very synergistic with other things we’re doing at J2. My goal at J2 is to build a broadbased, diversified, integrated communications company and be involved in as many different facets of the communications business as possible. Cable television would be one of them.
As I said, one is for sale and we’re involved in discussions with the investment banker. We’re hoping that we’ll be able to purchase that one. It may not work. Other people want to purchase it, as well. It’s something that will happen over the next two to three months. It’s something I think will be very exciting. Some of the people that work at J2 are people that worked with me at the Disney Channel, so we have a bit of a head start in terms of affiliate relations and so forth. It would be nice to be back in there.
FROKE: There are approximately 80 programming channels now or at least programming services to cable television. Some of them are regional, not national networks. If we break it down to national networks there probably are only 40 or 50. Where do you see all of this going? Oversimplification is to say that it’s sort of like magazines.
JIMIRRO: The thing I worry about is whether we can maintain the level of diversity that we have now. That may sound like a pessimistic concern, but it is a real one.
FROKE: Eventually the repeats will run out. Is that what you’re saying? You’ll need more new product.
JIMIRRO: It’s more that the pressures to garner big ratings will homogenize program offerings. Right now, in terms of services, I think cable is living up to its promise. I’m amazed when people don’t think cable’s living up to its promise. It’s incredible what I have access to. And we don’t even have a particularly good cable system in our community. We only get about 36 channels.
Here in West Los Angeles they’re putting in fiber optics and that will improve our service. I don’t know how people can say that the industry is not living up to all of its promise. Who could have said ten years ago, Americans could have had news any time they wanted or “culture” any time they wanted? I think that would have been regarded as science fiction. Maybe it’s not everything we hoped, but it’s a lot better than we used to have. I say that as an observer, not only as a practitioner.
I think though, that if you look at what’s happening to some of the broader based pay services or basic services like USA, as an example, or TBS, that you see them looking more and more like mainstream networks.
What one wonders about is the pressure for change. If we hit a wall, will we still get a Discovery Channel. I’m just using that as an example. I’m not privy to their numbers, or a Nostalgia Channel, or an Arts & Entertainment looking at 0.25 ratings. And the advertising pressure starts to build. Will they broaden their programming base and not be true to choice or diversity because of the pressure? Right now everybody’s growing so it’s O.K to be small because the service is bigger than it was last year. As the glass starts to fill up and now a service is stuck with a .01% market share and management is saying, “where do we go from here” and the advertisers are turning away, is it an inevitable temptation to broaden the base of programming, leading inevitably to less choice than we have today? If you observe the history of American enterprise, there tends to be, in my view, a homogenization process where services tend to want to appeal to as many people as they can. There are exceptions to that of course. There’s a cyclical nature to it, as well.
Generally speaking, it seems to me that there is more homogeneity as time goes on. I worry as these channels mature whether or not the great promise of this choice and diversity will remain with us. It’s one of the reasons I am a great proponent of the important public sector in broadcasting: PBS. I think, in the final analysis, the way to ensure diversity is to make sure that some people are drawn to the business with a different motivation, a different drive. Not that everybody in public television is noble, but the people there tend to be in it for different reasons. That public component, irrespective of the number of commercial channels we have, is the ultimate way to ensure at least some level of diversity. So it’s something I believe in very strongly even though I’ve never been in public television myself.
FROKE: In the early days of cable programming, the programming side was totally independent of the ownership of the cable television systems themselves. In the mid‑1980s, not too long ago, the cable owners themselves moved into the programming side. The big move obviously was the investment of the group of MSOs in the Turner Enterprise. Do you regard this as positive or negative in terms of the obvious interest that you have in programming?
JIMIRRO: I think, in the most important sense, it’s negative. I say the most important sense because in the short term it’s been positive. It’s been positive because it represented an infusion of money and financial support into services that flourished because of that financial support, services that otherwise might not have been able to flourish. On the short term basis, it might appear to be positive. I think on a long‑term basis…
FROKE: It threatens the type of diversity…
JIMIRRO: It threatens it. That’s not an observation just about our industry. It’s a function of any kind of concentration of power. The ultimate service of people in my view, politically, economically or financially, irrespective of product, has to do with a diffusion of power. That’s something I believe very strongly. America works as a political system because we figured out a way to fragment the power. Generally speaking, there is an absolute correlation between the concentration of power and lesser value for consumers.
Over the long run, there has never been a system in which power is concentrated where people are best served. I can’t name an instance where that’s happened. Whether it’s in cereals or automobiles or anything else. That’s why we have antitrust laws in this country. Everybody knows that for free enterprise to work, there must be competition. If you have too much concentration of power, you have a different kind of problem. If you have five different airline carriers competing in one route, you get better service than if you have only one. That’s the way it goes.
In the long run, I deplore concentration whether it’s vertical or horizontal. In the cable systems it’s vertical. (Horizontal would be a group or individual owning all the services.) I think in the long run if one knows anything about how society or economics works, it’s a serious problem.
End of Tape 2, Side A
FROKE: (This is Tape 2 Side B of the oral history of James Jimirro.) That then leads into another broad question of principles or values. In recent years the courts have given a certain amount of status to cable television as a First Amendment speaker, meaning that cable systems can be analyzed in the same way one looks at newspapers or magazines, maybe to a lesser extent radio and television where there’s a bit of restriction on First Amendment rights as a speaker, so to speak. The local cable operator has the right to select and present programming. Based on what you just said, is there a certain conflict between that position and cable television developing as a First Amendment speaker?
JIMIRRO: You mean a conflict in the sense that we would constrain cable operators, thereby impinging on their First Amendment rights?
JIMIRRO: I don’t think so. There’s a great history of America not thinking First Amendment rights are in conflict with maintaining diversity in ownership, which is why, for many years, one couldn’t own a television station and newspaper in the same market. That had to do with restraining concentration of power, but you could arguably say it opposed the First Amendment rights. I don’t think that is correct. I think the issue of business diversity and fragmentation of power is overriding vis-à-vis First Amendment rights.
Take it to the ultimate extreme. If there is no fragmentation of communications sources, the First Amendment is irrelevant anyway. The First Amendment is only relevant if there’s a plurality connected with it. If all the communications are centered in one place, (the ultimate extension of everything we’re talking about) the First Amendment becomes irrelevant.
FROKE: The most important part of the newspaper content being the news raised a similar type question with the newspapers when the press associations began to develop, and they solved the problem to a certain extent with Associated Press. AP is really a membership organization, so newspapers are able to say the news content is theirs. On the other hand, you can say the content that flows is not necessarily under direct control of the newspaper publisher or editor except the choice of running it or not running it. So we can dance around the pinhead quite a while.
JIMIRRO: The other thing that’s really interesting…and I guess you and I may have talked about this about 20 years ago…is the economic reality of what’s happening in terms of concentration of communications. Here is a situation where there are certain restrictions on First Amendment rights of television stations due to the fact that they are public trust. But there are no similar restrictions on newspapers, which do not require limited public airwaves. So newspapers are seen to have unlimited potential in number. The fact of the matter is that newspapers don’t have unlimited potential from an economic point of view, if not from a broadcast spectrum point of view. Now you get a situation where there is one newspaper in Philadelphia and 75 broadcast signals. That starts to get very, very anomalous.
I just feel that the essence of what makes everything work in this country, up to and including the First Amendment, is diversity, plurality. I am concerned about…our business as a business. If you take a look at the trend in America, it is consolidation. Earlier, as you can remember, we talked about everything being the same. Look at what’s happening with beer. There used to be hundreds and hundreds of local breweries. They got all bought up so giants like Budweiser now have, whatever it is, maybe a 45% share. That may or may not be a problem. I don’t drink beer. But it seems to me that’s the way it goes. We used to have seven supermarket chains in Los Angeles. We now have three or four supermarket chains. There used to be 11 airline trunk carriers in the United States. There are now seven. It’s the nature of business, to consolidate. To buy up the small companies, and to exert greater control.
FROKE: And on the cable side one can say there are 9,000 cable television systems, but they really are relatively concentrated and there are very few MSOs.
JIMIRRO: If we go the same way, from a business point of view, the cable industry or the communications industry begins to act like soap or other industries that are undergoing increased consolidation. Retailing is another example. I was in a store today and talking with people who were wondering what it was like when Bullock’s was owned by Mr. Bullock or Bloomingdale’s was owned by Mr. Bloomingdale or Macy’s was owned by Mr. Macy.
The individual entrepreneurs who diversified the retail business are no longer. Now there are enormous umbrella organizations with central buying and so forth. OK, that’s the nature of the free enterprise system. There is also an antitrust component that tries to control some of that. If that same trend occurs in communications, I think you have a very serious problem. The essential nature of our democracy, it seems to me, has to do with freedom being related to informed citizenry. An informed citizenry can only happen if there are lots of different sources from which citizens get their information.
I think we’re getting into a very philosophical discussion, but I think it’s very important. To go back, I enjoyed college so much, because I loved these ideas. It’s just as important as making good programming. If you have a concentration, you run the risk of challenging the very fiber of a free and democratic people. I think it’s that transcendent.
FROKE: Going back several hours to the time we started taping Jim, I said we were going to be covering four areas. I think the one remaining one relates to your assessment of the contributions that you have made to the cable television industry.
What would be the one or two things in your mind that you think are most important that you brought to cable television, or are bringing to cable television, for that matter, because J2 is obviously interested in bringing programs to cable television as well as through other distributions?
JIMIRRO: Well, I guess we covered it. You may be looking for something different, but again, it would be the Disney Channel itself. The Disney Channel will always be…as far as I can tell…it will always provide the cable operators with the opportunity to offer to their constituency a complete range of programming. If you take Disney out of the mix, there is an enormous gap. I don’t think there is any service that is more important and unique, than Disney. There are some others that are unique, Nickelodeon, or Arts & Entertainment, for example. If you took them away, you’d really miss them, where other services are more similar to each other. Disney is one of the five or six that, if you took it away, it would really be missed because other services aren’t doing exactly what they are doing.
I think the Channel has, frankly, made a lot of revenue for the industry. A lot of that money has been incremental because a lot of families subscribe to the Channel who weren’t prior pay television subscribers. Even now, those numbers are very compelling. The number of single‑pay homes that are Disney homes is large. We brought a lot of new subscribers into the fold. We lifted basic by substantial numbers. The people, who were turning away from basic, said they didn’t care about basic. This was in those “old” days. Basic’s better today. It may be less true today.
In ’83 a lot of homes only took basic because of pay. If there weren’t Disney on cable, they weren’t taking it at all. That’s the group we were talking about earlier. So, I think we brought money to the fold; I think we brought new pay and cable subscribers to the fold.
I also think we made a difference to people. I think the Disney Channel is making a difference in kid’s lives. The Disney Channel is making a difference in how kids think about themselves and how they think about their brothers and sisters and how they think about their parents. I don’t want to get too esoteric about that, but that was certainly the goal of the Channel: to enrich and to educate and inform and entertain at the same time. I think that happened and is happening. I think those are the things that did make a difference in terms of what that channel represented.
FROKE: Jim, thank you so much for taking time from your work and also some of your leisure time to reflect on your work with the Disney Channel and your career. It’s been enjoyable for me to visit with you.
JIMIRRO: That was a fast three hours.
FROKE: Thank you so much.
JIMIRRO: It was my pleasure.
End of Tape 2, Side B