A World of Opportunity: Etienne de Villiers

6:42 pm Business Stories

word count: 2233
headline: A World of Opportunity
kicker: International Television conquers new markets while spreading Disney and ABC programming throughout the globe.

By Dawn Shurmaitis

Etienne de Villiers is a prime example of the long reach of the Walt Disney Company. During de Villier’s boyhood in South Africa, Disneyland was a dream destination. The first movie he remembers? “Bambi.” It seems fitting that today, de Villiers presides over Walt Disney Television International.

“It’s huge. We’re in show business, but the emphasis is on business,” de Villiers says of a division that started in 1986 with six people and has grown to a billion-dollar operation with 700 employees and 16 offices worldwide. De Villiers and his wide-reaching staff are responsible for the company’s free and pay television activities, including sales, production and broadcasting. The chief objective is no less than to be the number one provider of children and family entertainment in the world.

Such a goal is almost certainly obtainable. The distribution channel division alone is among the Top 40 most profitable entertainment businesses in the world. While that arm of the company will continue its global reach, the real growth spurt will be in Disney Channels. By the millennium, the company expects to have a dozen channels up and running across the globe.

The potential is enormous: 75 percent of the world lives outside the U.S., yet Disney’s current revenue mix is 77 percent domestic and 23 percent international.

“It’s an extremely exciting business to be in. I’m busier now than ever before. We’re changing completely,” de Villiers says during an interview in his London office, where Walt Disney Television International (WDTV-I) is headquartered.

Disney’s international TV business was created 12 years ago, which is when de Villiers came on board in London. Following the 1996 merger of Disney and ABC, Inc., the division began reporting to ABC and then-chairman Herb Granath, a company veteran who was instrumental in developing ABC’s cable and international operations. Granath stepped down as chairman in January.

“Herb was a visionary who made significant contributions,” de Villiers says. “As chairman, he made the transition of ABC’s international operations and distribution into WDTV-I a smooth one.”

WDTV-I is continuing its global march. In March 1997, the company launched Disney Channel-France, followed by Disney Channel-Middle East, which is viewed in 23 countries throughout the Middle East and Africa. In April, the channel goes on the air in Spain, pushing the total number of channels outside the U.S. to seven, with three more scheduled to debut in Italy, Germany and the Philippines. “If Disney is going to remain successful financially, it’s got to grow faster internationally than domestically,” says David Hulbert, senior VP and managing director. “The international TV market is exploding. Done right, we could be stupendously successful.”

Doing it right means customizing each channel for each individual market. In production, it means hiring locals to staff and host the highly-popular televised Disney Clubs. “We want people who were born in that country and who are sensitive to that culture,” Hulbert says. “If we tried to apply Disney lock, stock and barrel, it wouldn’t work. You have to use the icons that really represent that country. It gives people something to trust.”

SUBHED: One big family

Etienne de Villiers is the Pat Riley of international television, down to his “GQ” style and dependence on a winning team. When describing the employees who insure WDTV-I’s high financial scores, de Villiers uses words like “dynamic,” “forward-thinking” and “strategically focused.”

“The challenge for me was recognizing that you can’t manage everything, you can’t be involved in every deal,” de Villiers says. “I get enormous satisfaction seeing my team grow and get empowered. My team, without any arrogance, is the best in their fields. They are an enormous pleasure to me.”

Selby Hall and her marketing group are no exception. They are determined to guarantee that Disney is number one world-wide. Forever. “This is a big goal,” admits Hall, senior VP, marketing and research. “But we have a big brand.”

Marketing that brand and distributing programs can be a logistical nightmare. In Germany, laws prevent broadcasters from interrupting kids programming with advertisements, which means the programs are often shorter. France is wary of foreign programming causing a “cultural Chernobyl” and enforces a number of regulation requirements. In each market, there is a different equivalent to the Federal Communications Commission, with varying rules and differing standards.

Further, nearly every program sold is dubbed, which de Villiers learned early on is no easy task. In 1988, he endured a disastrous dubbing of “Golden Girls” into French. Grammatically correct, the dubbed version nonetheless lacked the nuances necessary for the jokes to work. To insure exact translations in the future, he created his own dubbing organization.

“It’s hard to trust your instincts because so often your instincts are wrong,” de Villiers says. “The culture in Japan, for instance, is so different. Confidence and knowing who you are is perilously close to being arrogant. You always have to understand what you don’t know.”

SUBHED: A world-wide marketplace

The European market – where WDTV-I enjoys its greatest success -is changing rapidly. Fifteen years ago, most European markets had one or two channels. Now, there are nearly 60 in the U.K. alone and 35 in Germany. “It’s just exploded,” says David Snyder, VP, original production.

Negotiating deals in an ever-changing environment is an often tortuous process that requires extensive understanding of the legal and cultural environment in each country. Still, over the last three years Sally Davies and her staff have scored a high number of long-term agreements.

“Those rights are of huge strategic importance,” says Davies, senior VP, sales, legal and business affairs. The contracts allow for the distribution of Disney and ABC programming through cable, satellite and terrestrial broadcasters and operators. This includes ABC News, entertainment, sports and children’s programming as well as series and specials from Walt Disney Television and popular movies like “Pretty Women” and “Con Air” from studios like Touchstone, Hollywood and Miramax.

The first market – the United Kingdom – was the smoothest, and it brought in tremendous revenue, enough to break even in two years. But in the last three years, competition has only increased, making deals in successive countries ever harder to hammer out. Chief sticking points? Money and exclusivity. “We’re negotiating deals around the clock,” Davies says. “As far as I know, no other studio has succeeded in doing as many deals as we’ve done in the time period we’ve managed to do them.”

Davies’ team has a single keen advantage – the Disney brand and ABC’s reputation. But Disney and ABC also cost more to produce, because of the quality of the product. “Yes, they pay more,” says Keith LeGoy, VP of sales for Europe. “But they get so much more value. We have a portfolio of programming which people are very, very keen on.”

WDTV-I now provides more than 500 hours of programming to 300 million viewers each week through Disney Clubs and Disney animation. The extended programming catalogue – which includes titles acquired through the ABC merger, Jumbo Pictures, Walt Disney Television animation and its own production team – translates into more than 4,000 hours of programming worldwide.

SUBHED: Litmus test for success

When Tom Wszalek first heard the proposed title for a new Disney Channel show, he just didn’t get it.

“The Barmey Alarm Show?” he asked. “What in the world does that mean?” After learning that “barmey” – in the United Kingdom – means crazy or silly, the title finally made sense to the American-born executive. Tackling such nuances is a large part of Wszalek’s job as senior VP, managing director of the Disney Channel-UK, which was launched in 1995. Last fall the channel began broadcasting live from a London studio. In 1999, it will expand its hours, broadcasting from 6 a.m.-midnight.

“You have to learn as you go. You can never start a business and get everything right,” says Wszalek (pronounced WIZALEK), who came to London from Los Angeles, where he was managing director, consumer marketing for Disney Channel-U.S. “Our mission right now is to understand what kids are doing for fun, what they worry about, and to reflect that in the channel.”

There’s a lot to learn. Each country – and each kid – is unique. In Spain, for instance, children come home from school every week day from 12:30-2:30 p.m. In France, kids don’t go to school on Wednesday. In the Middle East, the weekend is considered Friday and Saturday. Scandinavians and Germans abhor violence. The Brits are more like Americans – they love “Rambo.”

Hence the “Hall of Connectivity.”

It’s a hallway on the third floor of WDTV-I headquarters that represents the tremendous efforts made to understand kids worldwide. The hallway is decorated with posters created by kids from each country about to launch another channel or club. According to a poster made by 8- and 9-year-old Spanish girls, the coolest things on Earth right now are the Spice Girls, footballers and shag bands. The poster crafted by French boys aged 10-11 tells an entirely different story. When asked about the important things in their life, these boys answered “controlling my checking account” “the environment” and “my school bag, because I want to work well.”

Focus groups – no matter what the country – proved that talking to kids as equals works best. The litmus test for programming employees? “If I were 10 years old, would I tell my friends to watch this?” says Snyder. “The most important thing to remember is that at the end of the day, it’s just a kid coming home and turning on the TV.”

Since 1989, millions of kids have been turning on to Disney Clubs – locally-produced, studio-based programs. From the UK, Disney Clubs have been launched in France, Germany and Italy. There are now nearly 40 clubs worldwide. Each one is unique, down to camera movements that fit the visual style of each country. In France, for instance, the camera moves fluidly and cuts are made quickly. In Germany, camera movements are minimal. Despite intense competition from other kids programming, the formula is working. Disney Clubs are the most successful franchise in the world.

“It makes the show ‘theirs,’ and it makes Disney `theirs,’ ” explains Hall. “It’s not a giant signal beamed from Burbank.”

Programmers learned early on the importance of creating customized clubs. The first Disney Clubs were virtually identical, except for the language. Research showed that Europeans perceived the programs as “too American” and “too slick.”

“There was a certain arrogance, that because it was American, it was better,” Snyder says. “If all you do is American programs, you’ll shoot yourself in the foot.”

Current ambitions include producing more dramas in Europe and Australia. One such program – a 15-minute show called “Microsoap” – will center around two kids with divorced parents. Each week, the kids will make a phone call to their best friend describing what’s going on in their lives. The program will be set in a virtual environment.

“It will connect with kids aged 9-11. The family is as dysfunctional as can be, but in the end, they stay together,” Snyder says. “It’s all about the new families.”

SUBHED: And for my next trick…

De Villiers didn’t watch television until 1976. Born and raised in South Africa, where his father was a successful cardiologist, de Villiers studied engineering at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. But engineering, though respectable by his father’s high standards, bored him stiff.

He’s been with the Disney organization since 1986 and is still clearly intoxicated by his work. “I remember (the late Disney executive) Frank Wells telling me ‘You’ve got the best job in the company because you get to do all the great deals.’ ”

An arts lover who enjoys Magritte as well as David Hockney, de Villiers is the kind of executive who can mix black tee shirts and Armani suits. When driving to the office from the country estate he shares with his wife of 25 years, he almost always listens to Van Morrison.

“I’m not a formal person,” says de Villiers, 48 and the father of two grown children. “I’ve never encouraged formality in this organization. Yet, we are very committed.”

The commitment has paid off. In the last 12 years, the division has
evolved to include free and pay TV distribution, from customizing
Disney Clubs to developing non-branded programming and market specific Disney Channels. “To do that, we had to create a fairly unique organization,” de Villiers says. “We were fastidious about control, fastidious about the brand and how to deliver expectations.”

The next five years will bring even greater challenges. Having more than a dozen Disney Channels up and running is just the start. The division is refining its enormously powerful distribution system while reacting to the internet age and the advent of digital TV. The immediate goal is to more clearly define Disney as relevant and in touch with kids – but a Disney beyond cartoons.

“Whereas the ABC philosophy correctly was to invest in business that had potential for growth and to leverage ABC’s broadcast ability, what we are intent on doing is rolling out Disney channels that are far more reliant on the brand and the product,” de Villiers says.

The next proposed launches? Latin America, Belgium and Holland. “I honestly think we’ve just started,” de Villiers says. “We’ve really just scratched the surface here. There’s a natural cycle to things, but I definitely prefer the roller coaster to the merry-go-round.”


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