As marketing-savvy consumers no longer content simply with cartoons, the kids who watch Disney Channel are far different from kids in 1928, when Walter Elias Disney began Walt Disney Co. and introduced Mickey Mouse.
This Disney network is working to reflect America's fast-maturing kids.
With its live-action shows and concert premiers, promotions tying in its popular Disney Channel Internet site, open-air movie previews and even a preschool road show, the network is all about serving its core audience, says Anne Sweeney, president of Disney/ABC Cable Networks.
REAL AND RELEVANT
"The best way to maintain television's status as a prime influence is to be real and relevant, and I think we have been very successful at doing that," she says.
Disney Channel has grown -- and grown up -- a lot in the past six years by programming to reach not only preschoolers but elementary school kids and tweens age 9 to 12.
One of the most significant moves was to reposition the network from a premium cable offering to the basic cable line-up. When the network made its first move toward basic cable nine years ago, "People thought we were a little insane," jokes Rich Ross, general manager and exec VP-programming and production.
Today, Disney says its cable network is available as a basic product in 61 million homes (almost double the 31 million homes it reached in January 1999) and is provided as a premium offering in another 1 million homes, making it available to 90% of cable viewing homes, according to company numbers.
"We are not in a boutique business," says Mr. Ross, who arrived at the network in 1996 from now-arch rival Nickelodeon.
Disney's move to basic cable has helped grow the network's audience share and favorable positioning among American families, says David Davis, senior VP at Houlihan, Lokey, Howard & Zukin, a Los Angeles media and entertainment consulting company. With its increased exposure among families and children, Disney is able to promote its brand and offerings to a wider audience while increasing profitability, Mr. Davis says. Greater revenues are generated by carriage fees from cable operators than fees paid by subscribers.
"It just became more profitable for [Disney] to have more viewers at a lower price per month than a higher price with fewer viewers," he says. Ms. Sweeney adds selling traditional advertising is "not in our current business plan."
Capitalizing on the audience that arrived with the move to basic cable, executives split the network into its different kid-oriented dayparts and have subbranded those for greater individual strength, says Eleo Hensleigh, exec VP-marketing at Disney/ABC Cable Networks.
So preschoolers and their parents have Playhouse Disney from early morning to mid-afternoon. Kids age 6 and up have the afternoons and evenings, with original series such as "The Famous Jett Jackson," "Bug Juice," "The Jersey" and "So Weird," plus movies, concerts and other specials.
Building on the growing popularity of individual shows, Disney executives have taken their brand from the TV screen to the streets -- and the Internet.
In what Ms. Sweeney calls "one of the most successful convergence models in television," the network in 1999 launched ZoogDisney.com. The Internet site, or "TV you do," as she calls it, now has nearly 2 million registered users who play games and participate in polls and chats.
Four of Disney's preschool shows, "Out of the Box," "Bear in the Big Blue House," "Rolie Polie Olie" and "PB&J Otter," have been produced as a 10-city mall tour, "Playhouse Disney Live."
The company is tying in promotions to its ZoogDisney.com site and, for the fourth year, will hold "PremEars in the Park," where first-run Disney movies are screened in parks nationwide.
"It gives us a chance to get off the TVs and into the kids' lives and communities," says Ms. Hensleigh. "We want to make sure where kids are, we are."
Though it's essentially a basic network, Disney has no paid commercials. But its programming is divided with commercial breaks, which are laced with Disney interstitials, such as TV show promotions, music videos, news, "behind-the-scenes" views of new theme parks or studios and highlights from upcoming film/video releases.
While there are never any price points or dates for traveling shows, Mr. Ross calls the effort "a hugely important tool" for cross-promoting the Disney brand to the core 6-to-12-year-old audience.
By Mr. Davis' reckoning, it's a powerful branding opportunity that gives Disney a distinct leverage over the competition.
"It differentiates Disney Channel from the [advertising] clutter that you see even on a Nickelodeon or Cartoon Network, which in the fourth quarter can seem pretty cluttered," he says.
"Even though you're not being barraged with commercials, you're still receiving the same kind of awareness," he adds. Disney is "able to, in essence, build a brand and enhance sales without having traditional advertising."
This summer will mark a milestone in the network's marketing. With what Ms. Hensleigh calls "a critical mass" of older children's programming now in place, Disney marketing executives hired Santa Monica, Calif.-based ad agency Colby Effler & Partners in February.
The agency assignment for Colby Effler is to generate a Disney Channel brand campaign that will define the network, incorporating the channel's original series, 12 original movies each year, concerts and other specials targeting older kids.
NEVER TOO OLD
The goal is to further tap that emerging, aging audience of tween and adolescent children who might not otherwise think Disney is for them, Ms. Hensleigh says.
With a core audience that is more media and marketing savvy than in the past, the network is using a varied line-up -- and its Internet offerings -- to bring relevant content to kids, Ms. Hensleigh says.
Even the phrase, "Kids of all ages," just doesn't fit any longer at a network that caters to preschoolers in the morning and adolescents in the afternoon and evening.
Older kids are more brand conscious than in the past, and they're sensitive about what they'll watch and talk about with their friends, she says. It's peer pressure, and Disney executives are keen to keep Disney hip.
"Kids are changing really rapidly," Ms. Hensleigh says. "We wanted to make sure from an internal sense that our programming understood that, that our marketing reflected that. We want to really get the word out and let kids get the news that there's a lot for them, maybe more than they might have thought.
"It's not your little brother's Disney anymore."