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Special Report: Family Programming: Disney Channel’s educated choices

Families have always shared a kind of peculiar community all their own. In pre-TV days, family life revolved around common stories and tales, religious rituals and holidays. Today, many programmers are trying to get that same family unit to gather together...
December 1, 1997

Families have always shared a kind of peculiar community all their own. In pre-TV days, family life revolved around common stories and tales, religious rituals and holidays. Today, many programmers are trying to get that same family unit to gather together in front of the TV set. While some are having tremendous success, others are finding the target difficult to hit.

This month’s report on family programming takes a look at those broadcasters trying to make it work and how they are doing it.

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Disney Channel president Anne Sweeney has always been a stickler for research. While Sweeney was heading up program enterprises for Nickelodeon/ Nick at Nite, her group commissioned extensive research on kids that influenced the channel’s development and, very likely, its success.

Today, Sweeney continues to employ heavy doses of audience research to mold programming strategy. Why the emphasis on findings, findings and more findings? For Sweeney, it’s about laying out very clear goals before devising a way to reach them.

Getting to know the audience

‘The information that we’ve been able to amass about kids and family-using a number of suppliers and research firms-is a big part of what’s going on right now,’ says Sweeney. ‘We believe in keeping up with what’s going on, listening to what families are facing.’

Sharing these findings with suppliers like the Jim Henson Company (creator of the preschool show Bear in the Big Blue House), Jumbo Pictures (creator of Brand Spanking New Doug and 101 Dalmatians), and Evolution (creator of Movie Surfers and Bug Juice) helps the channel maintain ‘a strong relationship with the creative community,’ according to Sweeney, and fosters the development of original product that is right on target. This formula, put into place when Sweeney joined Disney Channel in March 1996, seems to have come to fruition this year as the channel’s overall viewership grew one-third larger than a year ago, with viewership among kids age nine to 11 in prime time increasing by 150 percent.

Viewership growth aside, perhaps the biggest victory at the channel is its ability to hone in on the kids and family audience, while other broadcasters still struggle to define the category. Take, for example, Disney Channel’s two original movies this year, Dianne Keaton’s Blue Relief Productions’ Northern Lights and the Halloween comedy Under Wraps. Both landed the channel’s highest numbers since it first started being metered by Nielsen in June 1996-yet they were completely different products. ‘This demonstrates [Disney Channel's] unique ability to experiment with different properties,’ says Sweeney.

As for the difficult feat of getting kids and their parents together in front of the set, Sweeney dispels the myth that family shows have to appeal to everyone. Rather, she says, different shows can have different goals, depending on the unique strengths of the property. ‘You have to realize that not every show or every movie can do everything you want it to.’ For example, the channel’s two animal shows take very different approaches to a subject matter that both kids and parents are known to enjoy. Going Wild With Jeff Corwin takes a humorous, personality-oriented approach, while Omba Mokomba offers a strong informational focus.

Tackling family matters

While the Keaton movie took on some weighty family themes, edgy material is not considered family-friendly on Disney Channel, as evidenced by Magical World of Disney’s movie lineup Monday to Saturday. ‘We’re a lot more cognizant of the kid element in running things at 7 p.m.,’ says Sweeney. ‘We know that there’s a strong group of two- to 11-year-olds watching at that time. Our earlier film is broader, but even our second film is practically just as broad,’ she says. ‘Our approach is about the story and strong characters, not being edgy.’ Disney Channel runs animal shows, rather than movies, on Sunday night to avoid competing with the newly revived Wonderful World of Disney franchise on ABC.

What’s in a name

Of course, Disney Channel’s commercial-free status- which shows no sign of changing in the future, according to Sweeney-means programmers don’t have to answer to advertisers. This may be a valuable benefit in the area of family programming, as most advertisers seek an older 18 to 49 demo. But this advantage pales in comparison with the mighty power of the channel’s brand to attract families. ‘Disney has always been about kids and family,’ she says. ‘For 65-plus years, we’ve had a history of it.’

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