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Guest Column: State of the Disney Channel
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by Matthew Dort (archives)
December 2, 2004
In his second Disney Channel article Matthew looks at the state of the channel right now.

The State of the Disney Channel

Know how sometimes you have to slow down, consider what you’ve learned and accomplished so far and build momentum for the next leap forward? That’s sort of the point Disney Channel is at right now. Not that Disney Channel ever slows down – the network has a flurry of new episodes, marathons and special events set to sweep the fall schedule. But new shows and movies won’t be coming until next year, and for good reason.

In the last five months alone, Disney Channel has introduced four original movies and three original series, and that doesn’t even compare to the packed slate on tap for the year ahead. The network’s most recent original production, Halloweentown High, is one of its biggest achievements to date.  The third installment in the network’s popular series of original movies starring Kimberly J. Brown and Debbie Reynolds, Halloweentown High opened in October to an astounding 6.1 million viewers, Disney Channel’s largest audience of the year.

Even better, the movie’s premiere and repeat airings through the fall have captured an enormous audience of 9-to 14-year-old tween viewers -- an increasingly difficult group to reach – and similarly high numbers of 6-to 11-year-olds, Disney Channel’s target audience. That’s a welcome change of pace as Disney Channel wraps up a year when it has faced a host of challenges: The network is battling its own success, its audience is changing, its already fierce competition with rival kids channels is growing, all while its management is busy plotting the next set of hit shows and young stars that will drive the network to the top.

Not that Disney Channel is having a bad year. For a network that rarely meets with disappointment, Disney Channel has continued to enjoy a steady string of successes in 2004. Take this summer, when the network’s original series soared, led by That’s So Raven and the Psychic Summer promotion.

A six-week celebration of Disney Channel’s top-rated series, That’s So Raven Psychic Summer arrived in June when the live-action comedy expanded to seven days a week, with a new episode premiering every Friday through July. Topping off the promotion was a series of reality shorts treating viewers to a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the casting process for Raven, while fans gathered online for a popular trading card game based on the show.  The party ended with a bang as 4.3 million viewers tuned in for a special musical episode of That’s So Raven directed by famed choreographer Debbie Allen.

That was enough to convince executives at Disney ABC Cable Networks Group, the division of The Walt Disney Company that manages Disney Channel and Disney’s other non-sports cable networks, to do something few could have predicted – break from its typical 65-episode limit on Disney Channel original series and renew Raven for another 13 tapings, bringing the show’s total number of episodes to 78. To top that off, Disney cut a high six-figure deal with Raven this summer to develop a second series of her own for debut on ABC in fall 2005.

And then there’s Phil. Phil of the Future was Disney Channel’s first new live-action series in 18 months when it debuted in June. Following 15-year-old Phil Diffy from the year 2121 after his family’s time machine crashes in the present day, the quirky comedy/sci-fi series lifted off with 3.1 million viewers at its debut. That’s not quite as high as Raven’s debut to 3.4 million viewers in January 2003, but it did represent an impressive 71% leap in 6-to 11-year-old viewers from the same time a year before, and now less than six months after its debut, Phil ranks as one of Disney Channel’s most popular shows, with a second season of episodes in the works.

Those are the kind of success stories Disney Channel has come to expect from the summer, because it’s an important season for the network – kids are out of school and watching more TV than any other time, and often the network that grabs their attention in the summer months is the one they’ll stick with for the rest of the year. That became especially clear to Disney Channel last year. In the weeks between Memorial and Labor Day of 2003, Disney Channel’s audience rocketed more than 40% as kids and adults flocked to the network, drawn by new original movies, fresh episodes of its live-action series, and the New and Kim-Proved Summer, a two-month promotional blitz centered on Kim Possible.

Then there was the August premiere of The Cheetah Girls, watched by 6.5 million viewers, the second largest audience in Disney Channel history. The summer magic lasted through the fall as viewers stuck around in record numbers, leading Disney Channel to tie for the #2 spot in cable for the year, up from sixth place twelve months earlier. It was Disney Channel’s most spectacular year to date, and therein lies part of the network’s struggle this year – trying to top its unprecedented success in 2003. Through the first half of 2004, Disney Channel maintained audience numbers level with the previous year, but in the quarter spanning from July to September, the network hit a bit of a rough spot, with a low double-digit dip in viewers from the same period a year before.

Where did those viewers go? That’s where you have to consider a couple of other important factors – namely, Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network.  Disney Channel and its two top rivals in the hyper-competitive business of kid-centered television have all been tinkering with their programming formulas this year, hoping to expand their audiences while looking to crack the next mega-hit show. After drawing younger kids in recent years with a wealth of animated series, Nickelodeon has taken a cue from Disney Channel, rolling out an ambitious slate of star-centered live-action shows for older kids. Long a destination for boys with its trademark mix of action and anime, Cartoon Network is introducing new series for girls.

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