A Salute to Disney Channel: Programming: Back to basics

Becoming a basic service has forced Disney Channel to get back to basics in its programming strategy....
April 1, 1998

Becoming a basic service has forced Disney Channel to get back to basics in its programming strategy.

When it was a premium service, Disney Channel centered its programming around big-name event specials and stunts that are the common retention strategy for subscription-only services. The problem was, big-name events aren’t nearly as impressive to children, who enjoy watching familiar friends day after day.

So away went the kids to Nickelodeon, Fox and other services.

To become relevant again to that audience, Disney has been aggressively developing a slate of new series that target kids and appeal to their caregivers as well. ‘Our goal is to show the channel in a very contemporary way so families and kids have a place to look at Disney as a reflection of their lives,’ says Rich Ross, senior vice president of programming and production at Disney Channel.

The first and most important change in Disney Channel programming began in September 1996, when the channel switched to a strip schedule consisting of programming blocks or ‘zones’ for different day parts: the little kids zone, targeted to ages two to five, airs from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.; the middle-aged kids zone, for nine- to 11-year-olds, runs from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m; the kid-driven family zone prime-time block runs from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. Vault Disney, the channel’s overnight zone, debuted on a nightly basis last December, and is targeted to adults who grew up on classic Disney television and movies.

The programming philosophy strives to schedule shows that appeal to those members of the household who are available to watch during those specific day parts. That means scheduling programs during the little kids zone that entertain children and don’t drive their caregivers to insanity. For the middle-aged kids zone, it’s creating shows in which the action is driven by teenagers. During prime time, it’s airing shows, specials and movies that families will enjoy watching as a unit.

‘We try to schedule programs that will get the family together,’ says Ross. ‘The hectic day [of families] and their hectic schedule is our biggest problem. In prime time, we felt that everyone was running the other direction from families.’

The formula has worked. The channel’s prime-time ratings were the highest of any basic cable network in 1997, according to Nielsen Media Research, earning a 3.8 share. The 24-hour rating share was second only to Nickelodeon.

Original production now accounts for nearly a third of Disney’s programming schedule, and that figure is rising. Last fall, it launched a block of prime-time animal programs, Going Wild with Jeff Corwin and Omba Mokomba, which have become audience favorites and critical successes. In October, it debuted its first original series for the little kids zone, Bear in the Big Blue House.

This year, the channel has aggressively leaped forward with new series in all of its programming zones. Bug Juice, which debuted in March, breaks the mold of Disney Channel programming. Shot in documentary style, this reality program (see related article on page 44) is a video journal that chronicles life among a group of teenagers at a camp. Contemporary without resorting to being edgy, the series serves as a representative model of Disney Channel productions because it shows kids as who they are.

‘It’s about using creativity to break the envelope,’ says Ross. ‘That plays into our formula of respecting kids and families and not dissing parents nor creating humor or adventure by that means.’

In the little kids zone, Disney is unveiling shows like PB&J Otter, Out of the Box and Rolie Polie Olie over the next six months. Each series builds on creative activities that stimulate imagination.

In prime time, the channel is ramping up its slate of original movies, with plans to debut one a month. Specials are now used as punctuation marks instead of schedule fillers. But gone are specials with performers who have adult-only appeal, such as Willie Nelson or Judy Collins, replaced by programming targeting kids, such as specials starring Leann Rimes and The Backstreet Boys.

The channel is excited about the initial reaction it has received from its Vault Disney zone. Having earned fans including the likes of Rosie O’Donnell, Vault Disney, which airs everything from the old Mickey Mouse Club to Zorro, is designed as a place for viewers to get a nightly dose of Disney.

‘I want people to look at Disney Channel as the most vital place on television to watch,’ says Ross. ‘I don’t want people to watch us as default television, but as something that creates an active world for them that they go away and talk about.’ EK

In this report:
- Programming: Back to basics
- Disney Channel time line
- Marketing: Not your parents’ Disney
- Q&A with Anne Sweeney
- Drawing up Toon Disney
- International: Vive le Mickey

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