In the race for the youth market, Viacom is being challenged by a hungry Mouse. Long-dominant brands Nickelodeon and MTV have hit ratings plateaus in the past year, while the wholesome fare found on the Walt Disney Co.’s Disney Channel and ABC Family has been picking up momentum.
And neither Viacom net can claim a recent programming breakthrough on the scale of Disney Channel’s “High School Musical,” which premiered to nearly 8 million viewers and continues to throw off coin from DVD and CD sales.
Much like Fox’s talent show throwback “American Idol,” Disney’s two-hour phenomenon — airing to boffo crowds in 100 markets internationally with accompanying album releases — signaled to viewers that “wholesome” is the new “cool.” And while Nick and MTV traffic in harder-hitting humor and attitude, Disney Channel’s freshly scrubbed kids on shows like “Hannah Montana,” “The Cheetah Girls” and “The Suite Life of Zack & Cody” are driving up ratings and revs.
The story is the same at Disney’s ABC Family, considered an albatross when Disney first acquired it in 2001. Now it’s home to a strong lineup of offnet shows from the WB — “Everwood,” “Gilmore Girls” and “Smallville,” and two high-profile original dramas, “Kyle XY” and “Wildfire,” which feature lead characters whose fictitious interactions are far tamer than those of the “real” teens starring in MTV’s “Laguna Beach.”
“Optimism and positivity, they’re very much in the spirit of our company and the spirit of our brands. Our shows are hopeful and entertaining,” says Disney-ABC Television Group prexy Anne Sweeney. “It definitely distinguishes us from our competition.”
From a pure numbers standpoint, Nickelodeon remains the undisputed leader among kids overall, but Disney has staked its claim on capturing the “tween” crown (ages 9-14). When Sweeney arrived at Disney Channel 10 years ago, she saw a need for programming to them.
“At 9 or 10 years old, they were telling us that they were too old for Nick and too young for MTV,” she says. “What we set out to do was programming that was about real kids grappling with early adolescence, but had a youthfulness and joy about it.”
Among that group, Nick is still ahead of Disney by 12%, but the gap is narrowing, and Nick is down in the demo year-to-date. In total-day, Disney Channel draws 464,000 tweens (up 28% from the 2005 average).
Of the top tween shows on basic cable, Disney’s got the No. 1 show in “Hannah” and five of the top 10.
What’s more, Nick’s last live-action launch, this year’s “Just for Kicks,” wasn’t renewed. And Disney’s stars have the collective momentum, aided by the mega Mouse House infrastructure that includes both Hollywood Records and Walt Disney Records labels, Disney Radio, ABC, Touchstone TV among other sister entities. Rivals point out the Disney Channel’s wave of good fortune is recent.
They add the channel peaked several years ago with the advent of hit shows “Lizzie McGuire” and “That’s So Raven” and later struck out with plays for dominance in boys and toons.
But credit Disney with zeroing back in on tweens, girls in particular, the group that represents $40 billion- $60 billion in spending power according to industry estimates. The channel has also figured out how to market that young talent across all platforms.
Months before the premiere of “Musical” or “Hannah,” about a young girl balancing her pop star persona with adolescence, Disney was running musicvideos created from songs and footage of the forthcoming programs as promotion around the clock. Kids were also directed to download the songs online and on iTunes before the launches.
By getting its aud acquainted with the teen stars of “Musical” and “Hannah” lead Miley Cyrus, Disney drew mammoth auds (5.4 mil for “Hannah”).
“It’s a build-and-sustain model we’re using now for all our shows. TV is not the endgame,” says Disney Channel Worldwide president of entertainment Gary Marsh. Like so many other cable networks, “we’re not competing with other channels. We’re competing for share of mind.”
Translated, it means that Disney is grooming its performers to have personas beyond just the shows, creating franchises for Disney at large as their birthplace (see Hilary Duff).
Says Disney Channel Worldwide chief Rich Ross: “We may not be No. 1 in TV, but we’re No. 1 in online traffic, awareness is up and we’re growing across the board.”
Nick established the formula, casting “All That” ensemble members in their own shows, TV movies and feature films. Most recently, “Unfabulous” star Emma Roberts was cast as Nancy Drew in the Warner Bros. pic based on the novels.
In a post-“Lizzie McGuire” world, Disney is graduating stars at a rapid pace: Not only is “Musical” continuing to play well abroad, but also “That’s So Raven” star Raven Symone will topline a remake of “Adventures in Babysitting” for Walt Disney Pictures; records from “Musical” thesp Vanessa Hudgens and Disney stars Aly & AJ are in heavy rotation on MTV’s “The Real World”; “Musical’s” Zac Efron snapped up a plum role in New Line Cinema’s musical “Hairspray”; and co-star Monique Coleman is getting some extra exposure as a contestant on ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars.”
Music is a throughline: Sales of the “High School Musical” soundtrack have topped 3 million. “The Cheetah Girls 2” disc debuted at No. 5 on the Billboard 200 in August and has already gone gold. And Cyrus’ “Hannah” album is already the No. 32 album on Amazon based on pre-orders — it doesn’t come out for two more weeks.
Disney Channel doesn’t sell advertising, but Kagan estimates its revenue from affiliate fees last year topped $800 million. That’s not counting coin drawn from album and DVD sales and other ancillary businesses.
“It’s a very real and attractive thing for us,” Sweeney says of the synergy. “I appreciate the partnership we have with Walt Disney Records every day of my life. People really do work together here.”
Over the summer, Alphabet helped vault ABC Family drama “Kyle XY” to hit status by rerunning the entire first season on Fridays in primetime.
As it was produced by Disney’s Touchstone TV, the show benefited from the marketing and creative support from a major studio. More collaboration between ABC Family and the various Disney units is on the way, Sweeney adds.
Meanwhile, the “Musical” train keeps rolling around the world. “I was in Milan yesterday and drove by the biggest billboard I’d ever seen of ‘High School Musical.’ Its reach is really stunning,” she says.
Nick says it expects its numbers to go up by year’s end when more new episodes debut within its TEENick block.
Disney’s ABC Family, which targets a narrow 18- to 28-yearold niche but also sells 12 and up, is also shaping up to be a formidable alternative to MTV. More viewers are watching ABC Family in primetime overall this year, but MTV remains king among viewers 12- 34 by a significant margin. Still, the music net’s grip is slipping. Demo ratings are down 6% year-todate while ABC Family is up a tick from the previous year.
And as far as buzz goes, ABC Family is right on MTV’s tail with attention for “Kyle” on par with that of the music net’s reality shows. It’s a resurgence that recalls ABC’s rebirth via signature dramas “Lost” and “Desperate Housewives.”
Next up for Disney Channel: “Raven” spin-off “Corey in the House” and a second live-action series for 2007. Before that, execs are betting on big numbers for the fourth installment of its October movie franchise “Return to Halloweentown.”
It all goes back to the “wholesome” factor, says ABC Family topper Paul Lee.
“It works for us. We look to entertain all of the country, not one state over another,” Lee says. “Our series are smart, but they’re accessible to everyone, in keeping with Disney as a whole.”