ABC Trades Sportscaster for Oswald the Rabbit In a trade that took place late last week, NBC acquired ABC sportscaster Al Michaels to do play-by-play for Sunday night NFL games. In return, ABC gets rights to broadcast the Ryder Cup on ESPN, increased access to Olympic highlights and... Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Why would a major media corporation trade an Emmy-winning sportscaster for a cartoon?

ABC Trades Sportscaster for Oswald the Rabbit

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Before there was Mickey Mouse there was Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. And before sports commentator Al Michaels moved to NBC this past week, he was at ABC. There is a connection.

In a strange trade that took place late last week, NBC acquired sportscaster Al Michaels for its Sunday night NFL broadcast. The past 20 years, Michaels has been the play-by-play announcer for Monday night football on ABC. In return, ABC gets the rights to broadcast a couple of Friday's of Ryder Cup golf on its ESPN cable network, it gets increased access to NBC's Olympic highlights, and it gets the rights to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.

Exactly who is Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and why a major media corporation trade acquires him, well, that's the question. John Canemaker joins us now to explain. He's director of animation studies at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. And he joins us now from his office there. Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Professor JOHN CANEMAKER (Director of Animation Studies, NYU's Tisch School of Arts): Thank you. Nice to be here.

CONAN: Who is Oswald the Lucky Rabbit?

Professor CANEMAKER: Well, he's an obscure character who is really part of the Disney family early, early on. He's kind of like the Beatle that Ringo replaced.

CONAN: Pete Best. I know that name.

Professor CANEMAKER: There you are. Well, Oswald was not important in himself but more important for what came after him. And he's the reason that Mickey Mouse really came about.

CONAN: He was a creation of Walt Disney.

Professor CANEMAKER: Yes, he was. The problem was that Walt Disney didn't own the character. He thought he did, but it was actually owned by Universal. And a producer named Mintz, Charles Mintz, was someone who contracted Disney to create a series of films starting in 1927.

There were 26 cartoons that Disney made in the series, and about a dozen of them survive. But the problem was that when Disney wanted better terms for his contract, he wanted, you know, a cash advance and he wanted an increase, the producers said, no, you're not going to get it, and not only are you not going to get the increase, but I own all the rights to the character and I've already signed up your staff in California, and they're going to make this series whether you are with it or not.

CONAN: And it turned out he wasn't because he went to start his own studio.

Professor CANEMAKER: Well, he did have his own studio. But he went back to California from these negotiations in New York. And the legend has it that on the way across country on the train came the idea of a mouse character. He first called it Mortimer, but his wife said that was a rather pompous name and that he should change it to Mickey. And the rest is history.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Did it, on that trip, did it occur to him, hey, that newfangled sound stuff, maybe we'll have this new mouse whistle?

Professor CANEMAKER: Well, actually he made the first two Mickey Mouse cartoons as a silent, as silent films. And by the third one, all of this in 1928, you know, early '28 he had lost the character. His staff did leave except for one loyal animator named Ub Iwerks, who designed Mickey Mouse, secretly, when the others were finishing up the Oswald series.

And he made the first two Mickey Mouse cartoons as silent. But then by the third one, Steamboat Willie, that was the first one released, and that was made particularly and specifically with a soundtrack, a very innovative one. And that's what put Mickey Mouse and Walt Disney on the map.

CONAN: So, then we get into corporate mergers and disruptions and breakaparts. Anyway, at the end of the day, NBC somehow acquires Universal. Disney, and of course ESPN, who owns who there, I'm not quite sure. Actually, Disney owns ESPN. So, they end up making this trade so that finally Oswald the Lucky Rabbit ends up back with Disney.

Professor CANEMAKER: Yes, the prodigal rabbit has come home. And I think it's really kind of poetic, in a way, how it all has come around. I think it also indicates how Bob Eiger really has a commitment to animation again, which has sort of gone by the wayside at the studio the past 10 years.

I think he made a commitment to Walt Disney's daughter, Diane, and said that I'm really going to try to get Oswald back. And this is kind of a symbolic gesture that animation is going to once again be very important at the Disney studio.

CONAN: So, you don't expect that Oswald the Lucky Rabbit's going to star in Disney's next animated feature?

Professor CANEMAKER: Well, you never know. I mean, there could be a CGI version of him. He did do a number of films with mechanical objects. There could be a, there was Trolley Troubles. There might be something at the parks, you know, at Disney World or Disneyland. There certainly will be DVDs of the, you know, historic films that do exist of Oswald and put that into some kind of context. I think they'll find ways to make a buck or to merchandise Oswald pretty well. Disney always does.

CONAN: Disney always does. They might have to update that Trolley Troubles title, though. I'm not too sure about that. John Canemaker, thanks very much for being with us today.

Professor CANEMAKER: Okay. Thank you.

CONAN: John Canemaker, director of animation studies at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. Also a current Oscar nominee for his short film, his animated short film, The Moon and the Sun: An Imagined Conversation. Good luck with the Oscars. Thanks very much for being with us.

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