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Old hand new kid on the block?

High on Disney Channel's extreme success with tween girls (Hannah Montana and High School Musical, anyone?), the mothercorp has decided to make a play for the US boys audience by rebranding its currently low-rating Toon Disney platform as Disney XD. And taking a page from Disney Channel's playbook, the new 24-hour, ad-supported boys channel is aiming to set itself apart from the pack with original live-action fare.
September 1, 2008

High on Disney Channel’s extreme success with tween girls (Hannah Montana and High School Musical, anyone?), the mothercorp has decided to make a play for the US boys audience by rebranding its currently low-rating Toon Disney platform as Disney XD. And taking a page from Disney Channel’s playbook, the new 24-hour, ad-supported boys channel is aiming to set itself apart from the pack with original live-action fare.

‘We feel the timing is right for a channel that has a broad array of offerings for boys – not just animation,’ says Rich Ross, president of Disney Channels Worldwide. And that’s as close as he’ll come to directly addressing how Disney XD will take on its soon-to-be closest competitor, boy-centric animation powerhouse Cartoon Network.

Disney XD will have carriage in 70 million basic cable households in the US when it goes live in February 2009, as well as online, mobile and VOD platforms. Cartoon Network is currently available in 91 million State-side homes and has experienced ratings gains of late with its new Thursday and Friday night toon blocking strategy.

For a commercial net, boys can mean big business. According to media buying agency Optimedia, boys ages nine to 14 account for almost US$50 billion in spending worldwide. So besides the challenge of winning over boy viewers, which have a reputation for being even more fickle than girls, the channel will have to make a strong case for advertisers targeting boys to migrate some, or all, of their spending from Cartoon Network.

‘The boys ad market is a fairly finite slice of the pie,’ says Ed Gentner, SVP and group client director at MediaVest in New York. ‘I don’t think there is any doubt that it will eat into Cartoon Network to some extent because it’s the same demo,’ he adds. In terms of attracting viewers, Gentner surmises that Disney could draw a new audience of boys who aren’t necessarily already watching CN. While the channel, like Cartoon Network’s schedule before 11 p.m., is aimed at boys six to 14, Ross says programming should make a play for a core boys 10 to 11 crowd.

Though Ross says Disney XD is airing an equal amount of animation, he explains that live-action programming will be scheduled in prominent slots such as after school and early evenings to lure new eyeballs. Leading the charge is Aaron Stone, an HD live-action adventure series produced with Shaftesbury Services II, a division of the Toronto-based studio. The plot revolves around a teen who’s enlisted to become the real-life version of a legendary, online crime-fighting character.

Other original shows in the lineup include: Mongoose & Gunther, a doc-style comedy co-production with Turtle Rock Productions, about two best friends who are world-famous skateboarder wannabes; Hero and Not, an animated short-form series still in development with Italy’s Studio Bozzetto & Co.; and RoboDz, a CGI comedy from Toei Animation and Walt Disney Television International Japan. To round out the schedule, Disney XD is also dipping into Disney-owned sportsnet ESPN’s vault and picking up boy-skewing series airing on Toon Disney and Disney Channel right now. So expect to see Phineas & Ferb, Batman: The Animated Series, Superman: The Animated Series, Spider-Man and Iron Man on the net’s air.

Ross says the entire US team is transitioning to work on programming for the new channel, led by Disney Channel’s president of entertainment, Gary Marsh. Ross will also be tapping into the programming teams that work across Disney Channels worldwide. ‘We operate as one team and don’t have 17 different creative leaders,’ he says.

As for the 19 Jetix channels and six Toon Disney nets operating outside the US, Ross is sticking close to the company line for now, stating that decisions are being made on a case-by-case basis about whether or not to convert the channels. However, he did say that there are certainly opportunities outside of the US, and changes will be made when they make sense.

In the meantime, the Disney programming team will be on the lookout for new content at MIPCOM, and going forward, Ross says comedy will be a vitally important element to any new projects that make it through the door. ‘It’s something you’ll see baked into action-adventures as well as separately,’ he notes.

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