Gary Marsh was as excited as a kid on Christmas Eve — or, more to the point, as Disney Channel animated star Phineas on the first day of summer.
After more than two decades at the Mouse House, Marsh greeted the news of his promotion to chief of Disney Channels Worldwide — succeeding Carolina Lightcap, whose departure was announced Thursday — with the enthusiasm of someone whose To Do list is his favorite toy of all.
“I’ve never felt more passionate about what we do or how we’re positioned right now, or truly more energized for what lies ahead for our network,” Marsh told Variety.
The ascension of the popular Marsh completes a transition at Disney Channel from the Rich Ross era, following Ross’ exit to take the helm of Disney’s feature wing in October 2009 and Lightcap’s arrival the following month.
Marsh, the development engine behind such Disney franchises as “High School Musical” and “Hannah Montana,” had previously been entertainment prexy and chief creative officer of Disney Channels Worldwide. His new duties will include oversight over Disney Channels’ global TV business.
“It’s one thing to make TV shows, but if that’s all we do, we’re not succeeding at this point,” Marsh said.
“We talk about our business not just in terms of share of audience, but in share of mind. Ratings are great, but we’re really building businesses and franchises for the Walt Disney Company. Television is just a starting place.”
Insiders said that Lightcap’s management style never meshed well with the close-knit Disney Channels team in Burbank. Lightcap was picked for the top job by Disney-ABC TV Group topper Anne Sweeney after impressing Mouse brass with her skill at managing Disney Channels’ Latin American operations.
Marsh had long been seen as Ross’ heir apparent, but at the time of his exit, there was concern that Marsh needed to maintain his close focus on Disney Channels programming. Now, with the exec structure put in place during the past two years under Lightcap, it became apparent that Marsh’s time had come. “Gary Marsh has been the driving creative force behind Disney Channel’s remarkable growth for the past 15 plus years, responsible for some of the most iconic and successful franchises in our history,” said Sweeney in announcing his promotion.
“The evolution and growth of our Disney Channels business will come from the alignment of this great creative with strong distribution, in all its myriad forms. There is no one better suited to manage this than Gary. He not only understands the zeitgeist of kids’ culture, he helped create it.”
Marsh said he was equally comfortable wearing creative and business hats.
“I think that’s partly the reason this opportunity fits so nicely for me now,” he said. “I’m challenged by both — it’s just different parts of my brain.”
For all of the recent success of the Disney Channels, which include the 2 1/2-year old Disney XD and Disney Junior, a programming block on flagship Disney Channel that will become its own separate 24-hour network next year, the challenge for Marsh and his team will be to continue topping themselves.
“What I have challenged my team to do is tell new stories or tell the same stories in different ways,” Marsh said. “We are really pushing to reinvent what we’ve done.”
And without a doubt, Marsh feels qualified to lead the effort.
“Having spent 23 years in Disney Channel, having sat through probably thousands of focus groups and having consumed volumes of material about kids and their personalities, I have a pretty keen sense of what kids respond to — what makes their world tick,” he said.
Marsh believes that Disney’s semi-secret weapon for continued growth is in the boys’ demo — one in which the Mouse has not traditionally excelled on TV — with Disney XD at the forefront.
“I don’t think (people) are quite aware of the strength we have with our boys audience right now,” Marsh said, adding that overall, Disney Channels are becoming more “gender-neutral.”
Sweeney expressed praise for Lightcap, who relocated from Buenos Aires to succeed Ross. Amid constant ratings growth, Lightcap oversaw Disney Channel’s launch of Disney Junior, whose roots were in the Playhouse Disney block of shows on Disney Channel.
“We’re sorry that Carolina has decided to leave us and appreciate her many valuable contributions over the years,” said Sweeney. “During her tenure as president, Disney Channels Worldwide continued its incredible momentum, with the channel just delivering its most-watched summer in history with kids 6-11.”
Lightcap joined Disney in 2000 and had previously served as senior veep of programming and creative affairs for Disney Channels Latin America and Disney Media Networks, as well as chief marketing officer in Latin America. Prior experience included stints with Sky Latin America Partners and Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment and Fox Latin America Channel.
“I’m extremely proud of the accomplishments over the past 11 years at both Disney Latin America and Disney Channels Worldwide,” Lightcap said. “Building Disney Channel into No. 1 in Latin America, not just with kids but also in households, is a career highlight.”