Cable giant Comcast Corp. spent much of the first half of this year trying to buy the Walt Disney Co., a move the entertainment giant rebuffed. For many Washington Comcast subscribers on Monday night, however, it looked like Disney had taken over Comcast.
On Monday night between about 8:30 and 11:30, many of Comcast's digital-cable subscribers in Washington were shown nothing but the Disney Channel on all of the company's channels. The clicker was useless for about an hour solid and then several times thereafter for several minutes each time.
Comcast subscribers who tuned in to the "Law & Order" repeat on TNT, for instance, suddenly found themselves watching the Disney Channel's "Kim Possible," an animated series about a crime-fighting schoolgirl. Then, it was back to "Law & Order," but with occasional interruptions of one to three minutes, viewers reported.
Some may have thought Disney chief executive Michael D. Eisner was exacting his revenge on Comcast. But the programming glitch actually was caused by a malfunctioning piece of equipment at Comcast's Michigan Avenue technical headquarters.
In the event of an emergency, every cable company has assigned one of its channels to broadcast the government's emergency alert signal, which would instruct viewers as to the nature of the situation and what they should do. In Washington, Comcast picked the Disney Channel for its central location on the lineup (it's Channel 45), its wide bandwidth and its strong signal to ensure the alert would be widely seen, said Mitchell Schmale, a Comcast spokesman.
On Monday night, a piece of equipment regulating the emergency system malfunctioned. It switched Washington digital-cable subscribers (Comcast will not say how many it has) over to the Disney Channel. (Schmale said the Disney Channel was chosen well before Comcast made the unsolicited $56 billion bid to buy Disney in February, which Comcast withdrew in April.)
When the emergency system is activated, viewers' remote controls are disabled, which gave the unintentional Disney coup d'TV an eerie feeling, harking back to the opening monologue of the 1960s television sci-fi anthology, "The Outer Limits," which told viewers, "we are controlling transmission."
Comcast said the problem began about 9:30 p.m. and was fixed after about an hour, though there were intermittent interruptions after. Some customers, however, noticed the unasked-for Disney programming an hour earlier.
Yesterday, the Disney Channel expressed tongue-in-cheek delight with the impromptu schedule change.
"As a result of the great programming, we're used to rapid growth with Disney Channel, but this exceeds even our expectations," said Patti McTeague, a Disney Channel spokeswoman.
For some viewers, the incident probably was the manifestation of their worst fears about corporate media consolidation, an Orwellian vision of a future where Big Brother is replaced by Mickey Mouse. For the less conspiratorial, it was a major annoyance, an interruption for viewers trying to watch the Cubs-Astros baseball game on ESPN or to find out who won the WB's "Superstar USA" reality show.