It’s a scene that was repeated often at Christmas: Children opening their new CD-ROMs, only to find that the discs wouldn’t work on their computers. No one wants to see a repeat this Christmas, and most entertainment companies in the CD-ROM business have taken steps to ensure smoother sailing for consumers.

For entertainment companies experienced in getting audiences to watch a movie or TV show, or in luring buyers to a home video title, the concept of a setting up a toll-free help line staffed by computer software experts has taken some getting used to.

“Support is an entirely new concept to a large studio,” acknowledges Ron Frankel, exec VP/general manager of MGM Interactive. “It seems studios are generally more aware of support requirements than they were a year ago.”

Most software companies have faced various difficulties with hardware compatibility: Industry observers cite examples with Sierra Online, Sanctuary Woods and others. But the company that drew the most public attention for these problems was Disney.

After the Christmas buying season last year, during which the Walt Disney Co.’s “Lion King Storybook” CD-ROM sold more than 200,000 units, customers who couldn’t get the software running properly on home PCs flooded Disney’s phone lines and mailboxes (traditional and electronic) with requests for help.

For many customers, answers came too slowly. According to industry observers, Disney initially responded that customers were at fault for not knowing their way around a computer. The instructions regarding hardware/software compatibility were included on the CD-ROM’s box, but in small print that many consumers didn’t read.

Reticent response

“Every software company has had problems with compatibility. But it was Disney and their response to the problem – or lack thereof- that irritated people, especially because the title was so popular,” says one industry exec, who agrees with others that Disney’s track record in the tech support department has improved dramatically since last year.

Indeed, “Lion King Storybook” is one of the nascent industry’s great success stories. As of June, the title had sold an estimated 600,000 units, grossing about $3 million, according to software survey firm PC Data.

And today, Disney Interactive execs readily acknowledge that they’ve learned a lot in a short time. The industry, too, credits Disney with having made significant improvements in its tech support and customer service operations.

“We’ve got a lot of experience under our belts with a year behind us,” says Carolyn O’Keefe, Disney Interactive’s VP of marketing. “We’ve developed engines that are more compatible with various pieces of hardware, and in the last six months, we’ve gotten our state-of-the-art customer service center up and running.”

Staff additions

Disney has also beefed up its tech staff, adding Matt Gruson as director of technology and Geoff Selzer, who also has a software background, as VP of creative services.

Execs in the software industry had been critical of Disney in the past for installing entertainment industry veterans, rather than computer software experts, at the helm of the interactive unit.

But Michele DiLorenzo, president of Viacom New Media and a former IBM systems engineer, says the academic and professional credentials of top execs don’t carry as much weight as other factors. “It doesn’t make a difference if the people running a company have tech backgrounds. In the end, you’re selling a consumer product,” she says.

Nonetheless, DiLorenzo emphasizes the need for hands-on management in order to deliver a title that’s as problem-free as possible.

“I’m very detail-oriented, so I made a point to learn about the entire development process,” DiLorenzo says. “I know how much testing time has to be built in, and I know that if you’re in a crunch, shortchanging time on testing isn’t an option. I’m not sure if that comes from having a tech background, or from just listening to people like our testers, who really know what they’re doing.”

‘Bug reports’

DiLorenzo adds that “bug reports” – the results of extensive testing done before a title hits the market – yield useful information for execs. “You realize the range of issues you have to deal with,” she says. “It gives you a great amount of respect for what the testers are looking for.”

Disney’s O’Keefe agrees. Reading the reports, she says, “is quite an experience. You learn so much so quickly.”

When a Disney title is nearing its ship date, key execs hold daily meetings to go over technological, creative, marketing, tech support and other issues.

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