For the past few weeks, The Walt Disney Company's potential acquisition of 20th Century Fox has excited superhero fans with the possibility that Fox's X-Men and Fantastic Four could join their Marvel Comics allies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While that impending acquisition could reshape the future of Disney's Marvel movies, it could also give Disney the rights to the iconic 1960s TV series Batman and influence the future of the ongoing Batman series Gotham.
Although Warner Brothers owns Batman and the rest of DC Entertainment's characters, Fox owns the rights to Batman's 1960s show. Through Gotham, the Fox Broadcasting Network also currently holds Batman's live-action TV rights.
Both of these Bat-related items could play a part in a deal between Disney and Fox that's worth over $60 billion. While a prospective agreement could be announced as soon as next week, U.S. government regulators would have to approve of the acquisition, which would radically alter the landscape of the entertainment industry. If approved, this would be the latest in a series of major Disney acquisitions that's included Marvel and Lucasfilm. While Fox's current owners, the Murdoch family, would keep Fox's news, sports and broadcast networks, Disney would get Fox's other cable channels, its share in Hulu and vast content library, including shows produced by 20th Century Fox Television.
Before the WB purchased DC Comics' stable of characters, National Periodical Publications, DC's forerunner, sold Batman's TV rights to the ABC network for a reported $7,000 in the early 1960s. Subsequently, ABC awarded the Batman rights to Fox, who co-produced the series with Greenway Productions, a production house run by former TV executive William Dozier. As part of their deal to make the show, Fox took Batman's exclusive distribution rights, and Greenway owned the actual footage of the show.
Starring Adam West and Burt Ward as Batman and Robin, Batman became an instant pop culture sensation after it premiered on January 12, 1966. While its kitschy humor was lost on its youngest viewers, the live-action show was widely regarded as a hip piece of pop art that would define Batman for a generation. After its first season ended, the show even spawned a theatrically-released feature film, Batman: The Movie, in 1966. Fox also distributed that film, which was produced by Greenlawn Productions, Dozier's other production company.
The nation's "Bat-Mania" didn't last for long, and low ratings spelled Batman's doom after three seasons. After the show ended in 1968, Fox used its distribution rights to keep the series on in syndicated repeats, where it delighted several new generations of viewers. Although it still had a home on airwaves, Batman fell into a legal quagmire that lasted for decades.
In 1967, DC Comics was acquired by the Kinney National Company, which would eventually morph into Warner Communications in the 1970s. Although Fox released Batman: The Movie on home video in the 1980s, the tangle of rights between Fox, Greenway and Warner kept the show off of the home video market. These issues were only compounded by potential issues regarding some of the famous guest stars, pop songs and even some of the designs that were featured in the series. After years of continued entanglements, Classic Media consolidated Greenway's stake in Batman, which it subsequently sold to Fox for an alleged seven-figure sum in the early 2010s.