Disney cashes in on history lesson

Research exec finds that Depression-era themes resonate today

Disney is looking to the past for guidance in picking the hits of the future.

Charles Kennedy, a senior VP for research within the TV division, is going across the conglom to share some unusual theories regarding how the most popular entertainment of yesteryear provides clues to what could work today.

If Kennedy is correct, not only is there a predictable pattern behind why ABC series “Once Upon a Time” and “Revenge” struck a chord in recession-era America, but it’s for some of the same reasons classics like “The Wizard of Oz” and “The Public Enemy” touched the same strings during the 1930s.

Those who ignore Kennedy’s presentations do so at their own peril: His work has been credited with helping ABC score those two hit series last season. Moreover, as he continues using his research to aid in development, testing, marketing and scheduling the Alphabet’s upcoming fall lineup, he’s also gaining the ears of curious execs companywide, from ABC News to Walt Disney Pictures.

That’s made him something of an inhouse creative consultant/historian. “It’s about allowing people to think outside the box in a way that helps frame your thinking,” Kennedy says.

What Kennedy does might be best explained in terms of reverse-engineering: He studies the kinds of stories that succeeded in comparable historical eras in order to suggest how new programming can be tailored to resonate in the current marketplace.

For example, the exec has focused Disney creatives on the similarities between the 1930s and the 2010s, in the way that financial crises loom large over both decades. Because the socioeconomic climate of a given era influences audience tastes during that time, Kennedy’s logic dictates that similar eras are ripe for shows with similar themes or subtexts.

To wit, he believes it’s no coincidence that the Busby Berkeley musicals that brightened lives during the Depression have common creative DNA with Fox’s own modern-day take on the musical, “Glee.” Even the vampire craze currently seizing pop culture can be seen as an echo of 1931’s “Dracula.”

“A version of that is working on HBO with ‘True Blood’ and in movie theaters with ‘Twilight,’?” Kennedy says. “But what would be a broadcast version of that? What would fit in the Disney brand? You end up with ‘Once Upon a Time.’?”

Kennedy may not be the one at ABC who greenlit “Once,” but he is the guy who preached the importance of ABC doing something in the fantasy genre, given the viability of escapist fare in a tough economy,a truism he believes “Wizard of Oz” proved way back when. In this manner, he helps the network define its creative priorities before the first script of development season is even read.

While network and film execs have always been attuned to how genres tend to rise and fall in cyclical rhythms, what Kennedy is doing at Disney puts a more formalized focus on history than other studios might implement. “What I don’t think other people do as much is look back at where we’ve been to use the lessons of the past to inform what’s coming,” says Channing Dungey, ABC’s head of drama development.

Kennedy’s philosophy is grounded in a notion familiar in academia that entertainment is a product of its time, a manifestation of the hopes, fears and fantasies of the populace that consumes it, even if just on a subtextual level. “There’s a whole tradition of film research that takes this very seriously,” says Douglas Kellner, a professor at UCLA and author of “Cinema Wars: Hollywood Film and Politics in the Bush/Cheney Era,” an analysis of how popular culture reflected the country’s polarized views on military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan.

After stints at various media companies, from Lorimar Pictures to Fox Broadcasting Co., Kennedy was brought in to Disney in 2009 by Peter Seymour, newly appointed executive VP and chief financial officer of Disney-ABC TV Group, and the overseer of the division’s research efforts. But it was Kennedy’s experience tracking cultural trends that Seymour thought could help broaden the type of insight the research division traditionally delivers.

“I firmly believe that our traditional focus on ratings, while very much the centerpiece of our world, is not enough,” Seymour says. “In our environment, where executives spend so much time immersed in emotionally gripping stories told through video, our researchers need to be great storytellers too.”

Kennedy’s penchant for drawing on history in his research first caught the eye of ABC Entertainment chief Paul Lee when he was still running ABC Family, where it proved instrumental in fine-tuning the cabler’s targeting of the millennial generation. When it came time to put together his first primetime schedule after taking the reins at the Alphabet in 2010, Lee again called on Kennedy.

The research exec’s insights into recession-era programming influenced ABC’s interest in tapping into the nation’s growing disillusionment exemplified by the Occupy Wall Street movement. “Revenge” was one of as many as eight scripts ABC fielded during development season that fed into that sensibility.

Based on testing of the pilot, which Kennedy oversees at the network, he recommended that the motive for the protagonist’s vengeance be emphasized in both the first episode and the initial marketing to ensure the show connected with the sentiments of the “99%” crowd..

Kennedy’s input can even correspond to scheduling. It figured into ABC’s risky decision to move “Revenge” from its Wednesday timeslot to Sunday. At first blush, a soap may not seem the best fit between “Once Upon a Time” and new thriller “666 Park Avenue,” two supernatural series filled with monsters. But Kennedy helped execs see that “Revenge” actually continued a narrative thread among the shows.

“?’Revenge’ is the slaying of the real-world monster, which is really crappy people who use the system to destroy lives,” he says. “This framework helped us be more comfortable with moving a major show.”

As Kennedy sees it, a figure like “Revenge” protagonist Emily Thorne, who infiltrates Hamptons society to avenge her father, is traceable back to the kind of tough-guy characters played by James Cagney in ’30s movies like “Public Enemy”: Both are motivated to upend “the system.”

Kennedy can come across more like a psychoanalyst than a researcher, given how every movie or TV show to him is as interpretable as a dream, so laden with symbolism that the subtext has more meaning than the nominal narrative. Take the new ABC series “Nashville,” for instance. To the untutored eye, it’s about an aging country star who has to contend with a younger rival. But Kennedy believes the show can strike a chord with auds on a deeper level.

“?’Nashville,’ from a marketing perspective, can be framed in a way that makes it not just another soap opera or music show,” Kennedy says. “The metaphor is, it’s America that is the aging star that has to reinvent herself.”

Kennedy will be the first to admit his theories can seem farfetched. But he sees using history as a guide for zeroing in on the zeitgeist as “tools, not rules” for thinking about programming strategy.

Still, science can only take you so far in the art of television.

“No amount of research or preparation can predict something will be a success,” Dungey says. “But it’s an interesting thing to try.”