Friday, February 10, 2006

The Big Trade

One of the big sports news events of the past few days has been Al Michaels leaving ABC to join NBC and their Sunday Night Football team. Now the details of the deal are emerging. Michaels was traded by ABC and ESPN's parent company Walt Disney to NBC-Universal for five rings, four rounds of golf and a lucky rabbit (not just a foot but the whole two-dimentsional bunny).

Of course there's more to the story than that - there always is. In this case the five rings are the rights to greater access to Olympics highlights through 2012 as well as other NBC sports properties, while NBC gets greater acces to ABC-ESPN highlights. The four rounds of golf are the cable TV rights for the next four Ryder Cup matches which lasts until 2014.

However the big part of the deal is the lucky rabbit. Walt Disney's first great animation creation with his partner Ub Iwerks was a character called Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, created in 1927. In 1928 Oswald was esentially stolen from Disney by his distributer, Charles Mintz - it turned out that Disney never actually owned the rights to the character. When Disney refused to take a cut in advances for the Oswald cartoons, Mintz revealed that not only did he own the character, he had hired away all but two of Disney's animators (this led to Disney and Iwerks creating this mouse character and experimenting with sound). This crew included Friz Freleng, Hugh Harman and Rudolph Ising. Mintz himself lost control of Oswald - it turned out that the character was really owned by Universal which created its own cartoon shop headed by Walter Lantz. Lantz would create 140 Oswald cartoons between 1929 and 1938 (and the rabbit would make his last appearance on screen as late as 1951). In the Vivendi-Universal reorganization the rights to Oswald fell to the NBC-Universal unit, although it was an obscure part of the deal at least to NBC Sports boss Dick Ebersol. According to Ebersol "The odd thing was, on their list they wanted the rights to 'Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.' And I had no idea what that was. So I called George [Bodenheimer - ESPN and operating under instructions from Disney boss Bob Iger] back after I got the paper and I said, 'George come on, what's 'Oswald the Lucky Rabbit?' And he told me this incredible story that Walt's (Disney) first really big production as a cartoonist for the cinema had been 'Oswald the Lucky Rabbit,' before Mickey... Walt lost those rights, those rights fell into the hands of Universal Pictures sometime in the late '40's (sic), and in recent years Disney had made several efforts to get those rights back from us. For family reasons they would like to very much have all of Walt's stuff restored to Disney...Al certainly brought, even though not cash, he brought much more value than Herm Edwards did to the Jets in terms of a 4th round draft pick." Perhaps, but between possible DVD releases and mechandising (Oswald is very popular in the Japanese market) I don't think Disney is crying too heavily into their beer.

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