‘High School’ rejuvenates Disney

Channel glowing in musical's $100 million rev

Just days before the Aug. 17 premiere of “High School Musical 2,” Disney Channel Worldwide topper Rich Ross found himself in one of the few countries on Earth that hasn’t experienced the net’s teenybopper song-and-dance phenomenon. Yet.

Ross was vacationing last week in Croatia, which will soon see the bow of 2006’s “High School Musical”; China, Russia and other former Eastern Bloc countries aren’t far behind. By the end of the year, the franchise’s global supremacy will be complete.

In the 18 months since the movie first bowed on the Disney Channel, “High School Musical” has poured $100 million into Disney’s operating income — not bad for something that started out as just another telepic.

What’s more, the brand has created a ripple effect. “High School Musical” has helped strengthen the company’s international channel presence (which includes 27 Disney Channels and 60 overseas outlets overall) and has impacted almost every division, from home entertainment, the film studio (now developing a feature “HSM”), theme parks, licensing and merchandising, and more.

“It’s everything imaginable,” Ross says. “This is a global business.”

More than 170 million viewers have watched the movie worldwide. It has sold 7.8 million DVDs globally, and the soundtrack has clocked sales of 7 million globally.

Nearly 2,000 U.S. high schools have performed stage versions (each pays a small licensing fee to Disney). More than 100 licensed products are on shelves or are about to hit stores.

The frenzy has no signs of letting up. In its 21st (yes, 21st) run on Disney Channel, a repeat showing of “High School Musical” pulled in 5.8 million viewers last month, making it July’s eighth-most-watched primetime cable telecast.

Now, Disney Channel execs have their sights set on the sequel’s bow, as the “HSM” hubbub — which never really died down — starts anew.

For the cabler, the launch of “High School Musical 2” comes at an opportune moment: For the first time, Disney Channel is poised to tie or overtake longtime kids champ Nickelodeon in the ratings.

“High School Musical” is just one of several momentum-building pieces that have fueled the channel’s seemingly unstoppable rise, along with series such as “Hannah Montana” and its growing preschool block.

Riding the “HSM” wave, earlier this year the telepic “Jump In” became Disney Channel’s highest-rated original movie premiere yet (sure to be eclipsed this month by “HSM2”).

And the halo effect of “HSM” has not only helped “Hannah,” but also current series such as “The Suite Life of Zack and Cody” and “Cory in the House.”

As a result, July repped the Disney Channel’s most-watched month yet, as the network ruled basic cable in primetime among all total viewers. Disney Channel also swept the month in its key kids demos, ranking No. 1 in both total day and prime with kids 6-11 and 9-14.

The commercial-free outlet has also been the most-watched cable net in prime over the last few weeks.

“There’s never been a more exciting time at the network,” Ross says. “Everyone says, ‘There you go, you have it, you’ve reached a crescendo and it’s all downhill from there.’ But what has happened, it’s been a steady climb.”

Ross credits Disney Channel’s rise with its ability to target more than just kids.

“You talk to a family, and their 4-year-old is watching something on the Disney Channel, their 8-year-old is watching something else, and their parents are watching with them,” he says. “It’s about being more than a one-hit wonder.”

“High School Musical 2” was produced with that broader aud-ience in mind. The original cast of the movie returned, as did writer Peter Barsocchini and director-choreographer Kenny Ortega, who shot the sequel in less than 30 days.

Applying what they learned globally from the rollout of the first “High School Musical,” Ross says the launch process was very different this time around. For starters, the channel held a 24-hour conference call, in which execs from all of Disney Channel’s international outlets got on the phone, one by one, to discuss their goals for the property.

“It helped us galvanize everyone’s plans,” Ross says. “People started sharing: ‘We love that promotion that Asia did,’ or ‘There’s an opportunity to do what we did in South America and apply it to Japan.’ It’s not how our world works; normally we just push out plans.”

In one instance, a “High School Musical” promotion that began life in India — an online competition dubbed “My School Rocks” — is being repeated in territories across Asia. In South America, where a local version of “High School Musical” is in the works, a live 10-week TV show has launched (and is the basis for a similar project in Spain).

And this time around, to prevent piracy, “High School Musical 2” will roll out across the globe within a shortened six-week timeframe.

“When you have a TV movie, piracy is not that big of an issue normally,” Ross says. “But people pirate what they demand, and this is the most hotly demanded property out there right now.”

Back in the U.S., Disney Channel will saturate the third weekend of August by running several different versions of the movie: An edition hosted by the cast; a run featuring text messaging; and a sing-along version with lyrics at the bottom of the screen.

The channel will also utilize the launch to show a sneak preview of the new animated comedy “Phineas and Ferb.”

Also on tap this fall: “High School Musical: The Music in You,” an unscripted show from documentary filmmaker Barbara Kopple, who filmed Texas students putting on a stage version of “HSM.”

Then there’s the theatrical release that’s in the works for the third “High School Musical” installment. But as the careers of “HSM” stars like Zac Efron and Ashley Tisdale take off, Disney Channel Worldwide Entertainment prexy Gary Marsh admits that it will be tougher to keep the original cast intact.

“We are in conversations with everybody,” Marsh says. “We are hopeful and optimistic that we will be able to pull everybody back together and re-create the spirit of what we created in ‘High School Musical 1’ and ‘High School Musical 2.'”

When “High School Musical” first aired in January 2006, Ross says he expected big things. Disney Channel already had another hit movie franchise with a music bent, “The Cheetah Girls.” “HSM,” which felt like a modern-day “Grease” (with its high school themes and musical backdrop), was part of an effort to get more music into Disney Channel programming.

Ross credits the movie’s success on the affinity kids have with music. Disney Channel’s early 1990s growth was fueled by the retooled “Mickey Mouse Club,” which introduced the world to Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears. But the channel had moved away in more recent times from too much music; Ross and his team sought to bring it back.

“When I got to Disney, I thought there were three things we needed to do: Create great movies, great series, and have a great connectivity with music,” Ross says. “Gary Marsh and I cooked up a plan to put more music in our programming.”

That strategy started with the “Disney Channel in Concert” series, and later included the hit “Cheetah Girls” franchise. And then came “High School Musical.”

The insatiable appetite for “High School Musical” forced Ross, Marsh and their team to rethink how to properly exploit the property — and do it swiftly.

“We knew we’d do an album and have a merchandising program,” Ross says. “But then everything just took off. We had to move quickly, and thankfully, having worked at Disney for 10 years, I knew this was the perfect company to move fast.”

As for the long-term prospects for the franchise, Ross says he’s not too concerned about it burning out just yet. The “HSM” brand is too new, and has shown so much resiliency, he says, that it likely has a long life ahead of it.

“We’re just in the sophomore year of ‘High School Musical’ in terms of opportunity,” he says. “It’s always about consumer demand (and) keeping it fresh and innovative.”

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