Launching a new channel under the umbrella of a globally known programming brand can be both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, sell-in is a lot easier because the audience is already familiar with your pitch. But on the other hand, that same audience has a preconceived notion of what the channel should air, making it difficult to break any molds. But Eddie Cox, VP of programming and production at Disney Channel Japan, which debuted on SkyPerfecTV as a pay service six months ago, is ramping up to do just that.
The channel has the Disney basics covered, leading into the Magical World of Disney weekday early-evening block of live-action feature films with classic toons such as House of Mouse after school. So Cox’s next move will be to start acquiring girls animated series similar in tone to in-house productions Kim Possible and Lizzie McGuire in order to stand out from the barrage of boys action-adventure found on the competition’s skeds. The animated series should appeal to girls six to 12 without completely alienating boys.
Airing weekdays from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. and weekends from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m., the Playhouse Disney block is another programming priority since none of the other cable and satellite channels operating in Japan target the under-five set. Cox is primarily looking for animated fare that appeals to Japanese parents and caregivers with a strong and obvious educational quotient, and English-language learning programs are in high demand. Some acquisitions Cox has secured for this block so far include Nelvana series Rolie Polie Olie, Franklin and Little Bear.
The channel is also ready to start investing in local programming to pump up its regional look and feel. To that end, Cox has committed to a format of European Disney show Art Attack, which airs weekends at 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. On Sundays at 7:30 p.m., local TV celeb Kumiko Mori (who originally voiced Pikachu in Pokémon) hosts Disney Paradise, a variety format based on Disney trivia. Playhouse Disney links its programming with regionally produced segments featuring local hosts Saho and Kenji, and a series of regional four-minute interstitial news segments called Disney 365 runs right before the channel’s feature films.
Speaking of movies, Cox says he needs a substantial number of animated and live-action flicks because the Magical World of Disney airs one each weeknight from Monday to Thursday, two back-to-back on Friday and three each on Saturday and Sunday. The best way to define the type of films Cox is looking for is to look at Disney’s brand values, which are trust, optimism, self-expression, storytelling, imagination and entertainment.
Despite the relative youth of its cable and satellite markets, Japan’s kidnet landscape is highly competitive. Disney Japan goes up against other foreign-based channels Nick and Cartoon Network, as well as boy-skewing local nets Animax and Kids Station. Playhouse Disney also feels some heat from pubcaster NHK, which beams its preschool lineup into 47.1 million homes.
Cox admits that the number of viewers potentially tuning into Disney Channel Japan is small compared to its terrestrial competitors. Around seven million homes have SkyPerfecTV satellite or standard cable television signals, and Disney has signed up two million subscribers from this pool so far.
But it’s hard to gauge how strong a connection Disney Japan is forging with kids, given that the country has no ratings system. Cox relies instead on qualitative research, subjective viewer comments and on-air/on-line feedback to evaluate the performance of his lineup. Plans are in the works to conduct an extensive audience study of both cable and satellite viewers to give Cox a clearer picture of what programming and time slots are performing well.