Disney Channel tramples rivals

Cabler focuses on skeins, original movies, tween aud

NEW YORK — The Disney Channel is emerging as a force in cable after years of languishing in semi-obscurity.

Getting attention is tough because, as the only mass-circulation network that’s commercial-free, Disney Channel is basically invisible on Madison Avenue.

However, a number of recent developments have conspired to give the network a fresh lease on life.

  • “Lizzie McGuire,” its highest-rated series, is on the verge of a breakthrough, giving Disney Channel its first signature series. Although its ratings are not yet at the smash-hit level of “Rugrats” or “Powerpuff Girls,” “McGuire,” the character, and the show’s star Hilary Duff have logged more than 5 million emails from fans since the series started seven months ago.

    During one week alone (Aug. 3-9), says Sandy Wax, head of research for Disney Channel, the show harvested 355,000 emails.

    “This series is resonating,” observes Anne Sweeney, president of the Disney/ABC cable networks.

  • Disney Channel has carved out a niche within a niche — the 9- to 14-year-old “tween” viewers. More tweens watch Disney in primetime by far than any other cable network, including Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network.

    Ironically, the tween demo is becoming salable to advertisers while Disney has to sit on the sidelines. But ABC has high ad-dollar expectations from its pickup of “Lizzie McGuire” and another Disney Channel series, “Even Stevens,” for simultaneous weekly play on Saturday morning.

    And one of the reasons the Walt Disney Co. has agreed to buy the ad-supported Fox Family Channel is that carefully scheduled tween programming on the network could reap a big-buck harvest from Madison Avenue.

  • Quietly pulling consistently solid primetime ratings since the third quarter of 1996, Disney Channel exploded with a 1.9 rating in cable homes during the week of Aug. 13-19, finishing second in overall household ratings to Lifetime, propelled by the cable premiere of Disney’s 1999 animated “Tarzan” theatrical movie and an original movie “Jumping Ship.”

  • Disney Channel finally broke out of the Siberia of pay TV last year on Time Warner Cable of New York City — where only a tiny percentage of the system’s 1.2 million subscribers were buying it — when it elbowed its way onto basic cable and full penetration in November.

Rich Ross, general manager of Disney Channel, says he can’t overstate the importance of getting the network’s programming before all cable households in the media capital of the country.

Although Disney Channel shuns advertising, Wax says it still publishes detailed analyses of the ratings to figure out which movies and series to focus on and which promotional gimmicks seem to work the best.

The spotlighting on tweens, however, has come at the expense of household ratings, which were down by 4% in the July-August period, from a 1.64 rating last year to a 1.57 this year.

Similarly, Disney Channel is flat at a 1.5 rating for the calendar year to date, 2001 vs. 2000. But Wax counters that the network is up in all four of the kids demos for that same eight-month period.

“For the audience it’s going after, Disney has no real cable competition in primetime,” says Lynne Buening, a cable consultant and former head of programming for Falcon Cable TV.

Of Disney’s three likeliest rivals, Buening says that: 1) Fox Family failed to develop a programming strategy that appeals to viewers, 2) Nickelodeon shifts to adults at 9 p.m. when it morphs into Nick at Nite and runs sitcoms, some of them from the stone age of television, and 3) Cartoon Network, restricted to animation, appeals predominantly to kids 2 to 11.

Ross says that Disney Channel will continue to commission 12 original movies a year (at an average cost of $3.5 million) and keep at least four original series in production at one time. The heart of the network’s primetime schedule will continue to be two movies a night (three during the summer). Ross calls movies “the strongest programming cable has to offer.”

Programming may be the most visible part of the Disney Channel equation. But the real heroes of the network are the affiliate-sales warriors who bludgeoned cable operators throughout the past five years to scrap the pay TV model and embrace the basic-cable one, causing Disney Channel to more than triple its circulation during that period, from 20.3 million households in 1996 to the current total of 77 million.

What made the conversion task really laborious was the network’s staggeringly onerous license fee, which will funnel more than $550 million into Disney Channel’s coffers in 2001, according to Kagan World Media.

In the realm of least-beloved of all cable-network conglomerates, the Disney Co. has easily claimed the crown: The only network in all of cable that’s more expensive to operators than Disney Channel is its mega-profitable sibling, ESPN.

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