In 1977, Walt Disney Productions executive Jim Jimirro brought forth the idea of a cable television network that would feature television and film content sourced from the studio. Disney chairman Card Walker turned down the proposal, citing the company's focus on developing the Epcot Center at Walt Disney World. The idea was revived in November 1981, when Disney entered into a partnership with Group W Satellite Communications. In September 1982, Group W rescinded its interest in the intended joint venture, due to disagreements over creative control of the channel and financial obligations that would have had Group W shoulder 50% of the service's start-up costs. Walt Disney Productions continued on with the channel's development with help from the channel's founding president Alan Wagner, and formally announced the launch of its family-oriented cable channel in early 1983.
The Disney Channel launched nationally as a premium channel at 7:00 a.m. Eastern Time on April 18, 1983. The channel – which initially maintained a 16-hour-per-day programming schedule from 7:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Eastern and Pacific Time – would become available on cable providers in all 50 U.S. states by September 1983, and accrue a base of more than 611,000 subscribers by December of that year.; In October 1983, the channel debuted its first made-for-cable movie, Tiger Town, which earned the channel a CableACE Award. The channel had reached profitability by January 1985, with its programming reaching 1.75 million subscribers by that point.
In September 1990, TCI's Montgomery, Alabama, system became the first cable provider to carry the channel as a basic cable service. Between 1991 and 1996, a steadily increasing number of cable providers began shifting The Disney Channel from a premium add-on offering to their basic tiers, either experimentally or on a full-time basis; however, Walt Disney Company executives denied any plans to convert the channel into an ad-supported basic service, stating that the premium-to-basic shifts on some providers was part of a five-year "hybrid" strategy that allowed providers to offer the channel in either manner.
On April 6, 1997, the channel – which was officially renamed as simply Disney Channel and, until September 2002, alternatively identified only as "Disney" in on-air promotions and network identifications – underwent a significant rebranding and introducing a new logo styled as a Mickey ear-shaped TV set designed by Lee Hunt Associates. Programming-wise, it maintained a programming format similar to that which it carried as a full-fledged premium service; however, Disney Channel's target audience began shifting more toward a focus on kids, while continuing to cater to family audiences at night. Disney Channel also began to air break interruptions within shows to promote its programming and Disney film and home video releases, decreased the amount of older films that aired on its schedule, and began catering its music programming more towards acts popular with pre-teens and teenagers (incorporating music videos and refocusing its concert specials to feature younger and up-and-coming musicians popular with that demographic). On August 23, 1997, the channel relaunched its slate of made-for-television movies]] – Disney Channel Original Movies started with Northern Lights supplanting the previous Disney Channel Premiere Films banner. Disney Channel also started to increase its original programming development, launching with the 1997 debut of the sitcom Flash Forward.
The channel would eventually split its programming into three distinct blocks: Playhouse Disney (which debuted in May 1997, focusing on series aimed at preschoolers), Vault Disney (which began as a Sunday-only nighttime block in September 1997 before expanding to seven nights a week by late 1998, featuring older Disney programs, older television specials and some of the older feature films shifted off its daytime and prime time lineup), and Zoog Disney (a weekend afternoon and evening lineup hosted by anthropomorphic robot/alien hybrid characters called "Zoogs" that was introduced in August 1998, compromising original and acquired series aimed at preteens and teens). The Zoog Disney brand would later expand to encompass most of the channel's weekend daytime and evening schedule under the "Zoog Weekendz" banner in June 2000.
In 1999, Disney Channel began mandating that TV providers which continued to offer it as a premium service shift the channel to their basic channel tiers or else it would decline to renew carriage agreements with providers (such as Time Warner Cable and Comcast, the last major TV providers to carry the channel as a pay service) that chose to continue offering it as an add-on to their service. In the fall of 2002, Disney Channel discontinued the Zoog Weekendz and Vault Disney blocks – phasing out the "Zoog" brand on-air, and replacing the latter block with a lineup of same-day repeats of the channel's original and acquired programming – and reduced its nightly prime time movie lineup from showcasing an average of two to three features to a single feature daily. Its original programming slate also became heavily reliant on live-action sitcoms and animated series, eschewing reality series and scripted dramas.
The channel's original programming efforts of the 2000s also led to a marketing effort to cross over the stars of its series into music through record deals with sister music label Hollywood Records, beginning with Hilary Duff, who became the channel's first teen idol through the 2001–04 sitcom Lizzie McGuire. The success of the 2003 original television film The Cheetah Girls led to other music-themed original programs being developed, including the 2006 hit original movie High School Musical and sitcom Hannah Montana (which launched the career of its star Miley Cyrus). The August 17, 2007 premiere of High School Musical 2 became the highest-rated non-sports program in the history of basic-tier TV and the highest-rated made-for-cable movie premiere on record (as well as the highest-rated television program – either free-to-air or subscription-based– of Summer 2007) with 17.2 million viewers. In 2012, Disney Channel ended Nickelodeon's 17-year run as the highest-rated cable channel in the United States, placing its first ever win in total-day viewership among all cable networks as measured by ACNielsen.