When preschool-targeted “Jake and the Never Land Pirates” premiered in February as part of the Disney Channel’s newly rebranded Disney Junior programming block, the network had only one program in the top 10 for its demo: the seventh-ranked “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse.” But overnight, the network’s fortunes changed.
The first night of Jake’s tanglings with Capt. Hook and Smee set ratings records for the channel among total viewers, kids 2-5 and boys 2-5. It demonstrated that what was once the Playhouse Disney block really did offer something different as the new Disney Junior, further bolstering plans to launch as a 24-hour channel in 99 million U.S. households in February 2012.
“The thing that became so clear to all of us was that storytelling with heart is just part of Disney’s DNA,” says Disney Junior Worldwide senior veep of original programming and general manager Nancy Kanter.
“How do you begin to foster a love of learning, of creative thinking, of problem solving? You do it through character and you do it through story, and that’s really what we’ve defined as our brand that’s distinct from some of the other brands,” says Kanter, who was promoted to oversee the channel’s worldwide operations in February.
Disney Junior is already seen in 136 countries and territories around the world and is available in 21 languages, but Kanter says she and her team work hard to entertain while ensuring parents across many territories can immediately recognize the value in its programming.
Country to country, there are small variations,” she says. “There are some territories where the academic learning skills are a little more important than the emotional or social skills.”
In keeping with Disney’s corporate focus on harnessing digital technology, Disney Junior is teaching on a multiplatform basis, through radio, TV and an extensive website with interactive games based on the programming. Kanter says that “social network moms” help shows find an audience much quicker than possible even five years ago.
“It’s not just the moms on their block or on the playground — they’re talking to moms across the country,” she says, pointing to the rapid social network boost that “Jake” received.
When Disney Junior launches as a 24-hour channel in the United States, the programming will be a mix of live-action, animation and movies, but Kanter says the real challenge will be in dayparting the schedule. The 24-hour schedule will allow her to experiment with programming gentler shows in the 5 to 9 p.m. timeframe that wouldn’t have been appropriate in a block on Disney Channel.
“In early morning, early afternoon, you’re looking for shows that are very energetic and get your kids up and moving,” she says. “Obviously, toward the end of the day, you’re looking to do the opposite. No more jumping on the couch.”
Kanter has been with the network since 2001, but her previous experience in children’s programming includes stints as an executive producer for Sesame Workshop — where she produced the Emmy-winning special, “Elmo Saves Christmas” — and as president of the children’s entertainment website Bluecow.com. Until “Jake” took tots by storm, Kanter’s former pint-sized hits included “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse,” “Handy Manny” and “Little Einsteins.”
While she’s looking forward to launching a host of shows for preschoolers next year, she says one lesson learned from “Jake” will stick with her. The episodes that test the best are the ones in which Jake does something nice for mean old Capt. Hook, which Kanter says shows that the audience is hearing a message of compassion.
They’re not out for revenge or one-upsmanship. They just want everyone to be happy,” she says with a laugh.
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