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Disney Channel sets major prod’n revamp

Looking to make a full break with its inconsistent past, cable’s Disney Channel on Sunday unveiled an ambitious, family-friendly original programming development slate and a redesigned logo that prexy Anne Sweeney and her new management team are counting on to help drive the channel to the next level.

The announcements came on the final day of the semiannual Television Critics Assn. press tour in Pasadena, where Sweeney told critics that the new logo will make its on-air debut April 6 and the new series as early as this fall.

Deals have been struck with Jim Henson Prods., Hallmark Entertainment, Lynch Entertainment, Sandollar Prods., ESPN, JP Kids, Alliance Communications, Rebel Entertainment, Nelvana and DIC to develop projects for the network in all dayparts as it makes strides to become competitive with kid-dominant Nickelodeon.

The Disney Channel plan calls for more original live-action series on weekdays and additional animation on weekends while retaining the 7 p.m. family movie franchise it established this fall. Weekend prime will be turned over to original series, movies and specials as well.

Shows and movies in development are targeted to four distinct age zones: small children (age 2-5), older kids (9-11), kid-driven family programming and adult overnight fare.

The rundown

Weekday projects (all with working titles) include:

* “Use Your Head,” a Sandollar comedy developed and produced by Asian-American comedian Amy Hill, who will play the role of her own mother;

* “Bear in the Big Blue House,” a Henson half-hour of storytelling featuring a big bear puppet;

* “The Dumb Bunnies,” animated series from Nelvana that’s based on the books by Dav Pilkey about a family of naive bunnies;

* “Imagine That,” young children’s series written and hosted by children’s book author Douglas Love that stresses creative play and imagination;

* “Attention Earthlings,” Henson gameshow project aimed at auds aged 9-11 that finds contestants competing to defend Earth against alien invaders;

* “Silverstone MSPI,” adventure series about a young sleuth who hosts a children’s private eye series on TV;

* “Bug Juice,” a reality-based “Real World” for kids set in a sleepaway camp over a full summer;

* “Captain Victory Jr.,” Wilmark Entertainment series about a kid who inherits his father’s superhero gene and has to learn to live with it;

* and “Test Track,” gameshow from Telescene Prods. that centers on kids driving cars.

Primetime development includes the sketch comedy series “Family Practice” that focuses on a different family issue each week; “Twist of Fate,” Lynch Entertainment comedy about a teenage boy helping a family in order to earn his wings; “Danger Guys,” Lancit Media series about two kids “in search of danger”; and “Take My Family Please,” from Henson, a sitcom about a family telling us its story.

Movies being readied for prime include the Alliance dramatic comedy “Northern Lights”; “Round Trip,” comedy/adventure about a kid trying to get his separated parents back together; “Genius,” from DIC, about a super-intelligent kid in college; “Finding Buck McHenry,” about a kid trying to figure out if his school custodian once played Negro League baseball; and “Train Set,” about a boy who becomes trapped in his father’s model train set.

“Production companies have been eager to work with us because we’ve asked them to break out of their traditional production niche,” said Rich Ross, senior VP of programming and production for Disney Channel since September.

Ross was the second executive imported by Sweeney from her old stomping grounds at FX. Senior VP of marketing Elio Hensleigh was the first. Sweeney herself left FX only last March.

The channel has also set the world television premiere of “Pocahontas” for April 6 and will feature 14-year-old country superstar LeAnn Rimes in her first TV special in June, performing in concert from Walt Disney World in Orlando.

New logo

As for the new Disney Channel logo, it was designed by Lee Hunt and Associates under the direction of Hensleigh. It features the Mickey Mouse ears icon with a TV/PC screen inset that allows for both character and viewer interaction. It also includes the classic “Disney” signature. The present logo shows a blue TV screen with white horizontal lines centered by a white mouse-ears silhouette.

Sweeney said the new logo was a way to “create a distinctive television brand” that allows the channel to stand out in the increasingly multichannel, multimedia universe.

The Disney Channel now has 25 million subscribers, an increase of 10 million from a year ago. The majority of its sub base has been converted from premium to expanded basic customers over the course of the past few years.

But Ross said Sunday that despite the channel’s increasingly non-premium status, there are still no plans to convert it to an ad-supported service.

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