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How TV has Replaced Animated Films as Disney’s Biggest Brand Ambassador

The growth of Disney Channels Worldwide has given the Mouse House a powerful way to promote Disney to kids and families around the globe.

For nearly eight decades, Disney has relied on films to rally kids and their families around the Mouse House. But with its core audience increasingly glued to screens of all sizes, the success of animated hits such as “Phineas and Ferb” and live-action fare like “Violetta” and “A.N.T. Farm,” has turned TV into the company’s most powerful brand ambassador.

That’s especially true overseas, where Disney Channels Worldwide — which operates Disney Channel, Disney XD and Disney Junior — has succeeded in introducing young audiences to the company’s iconic characters for the first time, or to new franchises that make them loyal to Mickey and friends for years to come.

Disney Channel has become the biggest franchise grower for the company worldwide,” Jay Rasulo, the Walt Disney Co.’s chief financial officer, said last fall at the Bank of America/Merrill Lynch Media, Communications and Entertainment Conference in Beverly Hills. “It used to be (film) animation, but the amount of time kids spend in front of the TV and

Web devices (and) mobile devices (watching) the Disney Channel make this an incredibly powerful vehicle.”

Disney has always reached out to kids on TV via shows like “The Wonderful World of Disney” and “The Mickey Mouse Club,” but Disney Channels gives it more of a dedicated profile. In fact, given that more kids tune in to Disney Channels’ shows each day than watch the studio’s films, the kids cabler has launched more moneymaking properties than the Walt Disney

Studios over the past five to seven years, Rasulo says.

Gary Marsh, president and chief creative officer of Disney Channels Worldwide, says that the channel’s ability to reach people in their homes every day with programming that’s entertaining and uplifting is a profoundly positive influence in people’s relationship to the Disney brand. “In many countries, we are a daily 24/7 touch point presenting the core of all things Disney. It’s hard to imagine a more potent form of ambassadorship.”

It’s hard to argue with that when you consider the numbers: Disney Channels’ portfolio, targeting 2- to 11-year-olds, includes 107 channels in 166 countries, available in 431.3 million households. Not only is that up 13% from last year, it’s an exponential rise over 2007, when the division had 54 million total viewers in 20 countries.

Viewership is also increasing rapidly. In the fourth quarter of 2012, 620 million total viewers watched the channels around the world, an improvement of 11% over 2011. In Europe, the

Middle East and Africa, views are up 20%, another 15% in Latin America and 10% in Asia over last year. Disney Channel’s top international markets are the U.K., France, Germany, Italy and Latin America, in that order.

That kind of growth has made the network’s animated/live-action programming mix —“Phineas and Ferb,” “A.N.T. Farm,” “Jake and the Never Land Pirates,” “Sofia the First,” “Shake It Up,” “Good Luck Charlie,” “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse” and before that, “Hannah Montana,” “The Wizards of Waverly Place,” and “High School Musical” — international hits, which has turned its actors and characters into homegrown Disney Channel stars, and companywide ambassadors to promote everything from Disney’s films and TV shows to theme parks and mobile apps.

Get kids interested in Marvel’s superheroes or Lucasfilm’s “Star Wars” at an early age and they may want their parents to take them to the next films featuring Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, the Avengers or Darth Vader.

Disney is revving up its promotional machine to launch 17-year-old Dove Cameron as its next young icon, casting the “Liv & Maddie” sitcom topliner in the snowboarding movie “Cloud 9,” co-produced by Ashley Tisdale and pro-boarder Shaun White.

The market size of its footprint has certainly helped Disney become more competitive against rival kids cablers like Viacom’s Nickelodeon and Time Warner’s Cartoon Network, which operate channels in 110 and 170 countries, respectively.

Last year, Disney Channel was No. 1 among kids 2-11, toppling Nickelodeon’s 17-year record in total day among the largest advertiser-targeted segment, while it was also tops among kids 6-11 for the second consecutive year, and for the fourth year among tweens 9-14.

But operating so many channels means keeping tabs on what audiences in those countries want to watch.

“At the end of the day, we look at what makes our audiences similar, and celebrate that,” says Paul DeBenedittis, senior VP, programming strategy, Disney Channels Worldwide. “Being a kid and growing up and coming of age is universal. There might be different components of what’s happening in a different market, but kids want really funny, relatable and quality content.”

While many of its U.S. shows are dubbed for foreign territoriessome have been repurposed entirely to cater to local tastes.

For example, Disney Channel in India adapted sitcom “Good Luck Charlie” with its own local cast, and a new name, “Best of Luck Nikki,” but is filming the same scripts the U.S. show uses.

It’s similar to how it reworked “The Suite Life of Zack & Cody” as “The Suite Life of Karan & Kabir.”

In other territories, Disney Channels is producing its own local-language productions.

Music-based teen soap “Violetta” has become a big hit in Latin America since launching there last year and spinning off a live concert series. Since then, show has begun airing dubbed versions in Italy, Spain and Russia, but has not yet bowed in the U.S.

“GoalMouth,” a sports-themed show in the U.K. is being eyed as a format for other regions. And in Russia, programmers are exploring the launch of original content to complement the U.S. shows it airs.

“Hopefully along the way, we will be able to globalize the local and localize the global,” says Paul DeBenedittis, senior VP of programming strategy for Disney Channels Worldwide. “Nothing would make us happier than to have a Disney Russia series be adapted for the U.S. or other markets.”

Disney international chairman Andy Bird expressed similar sentiments during his opening keynote address this week at FICCI Frames conference, in Mumbai, India . “There is no international market,” he said. “There is only a vast collection of diverse and dynamic local markets that demand individual strategies and relevant products from any business trying to succeed there.”

Disney Channel hits overseas are only now starting to make their way Stateside.

In the U.K., “Henry Hugglemonster” debuted on Disney Jr., in February, made its way to India, and will air on the U.S. channel in April.

“It’s a great example of a project developed in another region that will go global,” DeBenedittis says.

In some markets, like Australia where a Disney XD does not currently exist, “Lab Rats” is a top five series on the Disney Channel.

“Because the shows still have the DNA of Disney, they can still work on a Disney Channel,” DeBenedittis says.

To help cross over more properties, Disney Channel also has offered shows’ assets to its channels to adapt for their audiences.

For “Take Two With Phineas and Ferb,” a talkshow-themed interstitial that paired the show’s toon stars with celebs like Jack Black, Taylor Swift and David Beckham, Disney made the animated sequences available for channels to feature local comedians and athletes like India standup comedian Cyrus Broacha.

Not every show has been a success for Disney, however.

Disney XD’s visually impressive and pricey animated series “Tron: Uprising,” based on the films, struggled to attract the channel’s core viewers of 6- 11-year-old boys. The series’ tone appealed more to an older audience that isn’t yet watching the channel.

“It did well with many segments of the audience, but missed some of the key demos,” DeBenedittis says. “It’s one of those examples where if the bull’s-eye is the Disney brand, and you go into the other rings, you take some risks in missing the magic of the bull’s-eye. (“Tron: Uprising” took the right risk and we created a show to be so proud of, but it hit the secondary ring of the target.”)

With a sequel to “Tron: Legacy” in the works at the studio, Disney Channels plans to eventually bring back “Tron,” but it may not be returning as the same show, DeBenedittis says.

Instead, live-action series like “Pair of Kings,” “Lab Rats,” “Kickin’ It!” and “Crash and Bernstein” are slowly defining what the Disney XD brand means.

“Live action has really been fueling much of our success,” DeBenedittis says, since the series have made it easier for young audiences to connect with the stories and characters, and engage with the talent playing them. But the company also sees the value of animation, given that “Phineas and Ferb” struck a chord with its uber-optimistic themes of imagination, friendship and anything being possible.

While most channels feature a balance of live action and animation, in parts of Asia, toons tend to work better.

“Asia tends to be a market that thrived on anime and animation,” DeBenedittis says. “The live action genre isn’t new, but in the kids landscape, we’re still showcasing this type of content to an audience that lives and breathes anime.” As a result, Disney plans to invest more on local programming in those markets, including Japan.

Moving forward, Marvel and Lucasfilm will play a more significant programming role for Disney XD in the U.S. and some global markets, with new shows featuring the Avengers, the Incredible Hulk and “Star Wars” characters. “Ultimate Spider-Man” already is the No. 1 series on XD in the U.K.

The company has pulled the plug on the animated “Star Wars: The Clone Wars,” which had been airing on Cartoon Network over the past five seasons, to develop new shows.

Marvel and Lucasfilm offer “a world of really magical storytelling that has spanned generations, and we haven’t even scratched the surface of what this could mean for us,” DeBenedittis says.

Given how quickly its younger auds grow up, Disney’s shows typically have a short life, lasting around four years.

“That’s about all we need for kids in the landscape,” DeBenedittis says, citing the four-year run of “Hannah Montana” as an example of a series that saw its fanbase grow up and move on to other shows once it wrappedDisney Channel’s “Good Luck Charlie” enters its fourth season in April. “We will go to season five if there is still more story to tell,” DeBenedittis says.

Still the generational aspect is what helped greenlight “Girl Meets World,” a spinoff of “Boy Meets World,” that aired on ABC from 1993-2000.

“We think there is a whole other generation that is going on the same journey,” and will watch the updated series featuring the same cast as parents, with their kids, DeBenedittis says.

Because of its success, Disney wants to see its kids cable biz expand into even more markets in the future. Bob Iger has pushed the growth of Disney Channels since becoming Disney chairman and CEO in 2005.

In 2011, Disney paid $300 million for a 49% stake in Russia’s Seven TV to launch a free Disney Channel in 40 million homes. Last year, it spent $375 million to acquire UTV Software

Communications, which produces local programming for Disney Channel India.

While it airs programming blocks featuring Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and other characters on China Central Television Network, a new Disney Channel could launch in China because of the company’s partnership with Shanghai Radio, Film and Television Development Co., which is involved with the construction of Disney’s new $3.7 billion park in Shanghai.

“With the addition of some of our Asian-based Disney Channels over the past few years — specifically Turkey, India and most recently Russia — we’ve been steadily adding to our distribution reach,” Marsh says. “The one significant country that remains on our wish list is China. Having a dedicated Disney Channel there to accompany the launch of Shanghai

Disneyland, in 2015, represents a huge opportunity.”Marsh adds that the division already has installed a local China-based content creation team whose focus is to develop and produce locally sourced, Disney-branded content for distribution inside China — “content that will proudly showcase what Disney represents for current and future generations,” he says.

Disney also is expanding its digital presence through its Watch apps, which count 12.4 million downloads, as of February, with users spending 6 billion minutes watching Disney Channel content via live feeds or VOD on tablets and other mobile devices.

“For us it’s really about staying connected to our audience and being everywhere they are and want to be,” DeBenedittis says. “It’s really about making sure that there are many different ways of engaging with our audiences.”

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