I started twitching last Thursday when I heard that Disney is launching a new network called Disney XD, geared specifically toward boys. It’s too late to lock up America’s daughters: Disney has been courting them ever since Prince Charming’s animated lips first touched Snow White’s in 1937. But until now, Disney has been so busy trafficking in princess fantasies (ancient and modern) that they’ve mostly left boys alone, unless you count the omnipresent marketing of Pixar properties like Cars and Pirates of the Caribbean. As a mom of two little boys and no girls, I’ve been grateful to have my kids off Disney’s demographic profile.
Then comes a press release about Disney XD, worded in cheerful consumerist-speak: “The new brand will include a compelling mix of live-action and animated programming for kids age 6-14, hyper-targeting boys and their quest for discovery, accomplishment, sports, adventure and humor.”
Eeek! “Hyper-targeting” sounds awfully Donald Rumsfeld. Do I want the people who loosed High School Musical upon the world “hyper-targeting” my offspring?
The new network’s marquee attraction (no shock here) is a boy-centric take on Hannah Montana: a live-action series called Aaron Stone, about a teenage boy living a double life as a mild-mannered student by day and the real-life version of a crime-fighting video-game character by night. Come next year, will we see an army of boys as obsessed with Aaron as so many girls are with Hannah? And will it further reinforce gender stereotypes to have one Disney channel filled with Hannah, Gabriella, Sharpay and their sea of shiny pink lip gloss, and another filled with “discovery, accomplishment, sports, adventure and humor” designed especially for boys?
What makes Disney seem so monolithic is how well they create cradle-to-grave consumers. Of course, a hundred other companies seek to do the same with our kids – they’re just not as good at it as Disney. As much as the Disney nation-state can worry me, it hasn’t forced anyone to fork over the billions it earns. Parents and piggybankers spend voluntarily. When the new network launches, they’ll likely spend even more.
What lies in store for our boys in February, when Disney XD takes the place of Toon Disney? Below, via email, Disney Channel’s Senior Vice President for Marketing and Creative, Richard Loomis, answers questions about the new venture. – Melissa Rayworth
You note in your press release that the Disney Channel is especially successful with girls, and your goal with Disney XD is to have that same success ratio with boys. How do you persuade boys that Disney is cool enough to appeal to them? How will the programming nudge boys to see Disney as a potentially boyish, rather than girlish, brand?
Our new Disney XD will launch with the benefit of the Disney brand credibility and a unique, creative point of view. We’re confident it will fulfill boys’ desire for empowering stories and heroic characters. Certainly, we know the Disney brand is appealing to both girls and boys and we work to make the Disney Channel and Disney XD platforms inclusive of both genders. The skew happens to be more toward girls for Disney Channel and more towards boys for Disney XD, but neither platform is an exclusive “clubhouse” for one gender.
In launching this new channel, how do you reach boys to let them know this is out there and get them interested? Where will they be hearing about this?
Our marketing plan is in development, but we plan to support the Disney XD launch on all platforms. Boys continue to watch television and we have several powerful platforms to connect with kids about all that’s to come with Disney XD: Disney Channel and Toon Disney and our nationwide broadcast platform, Radio Disney, the related digital platforms DisneyChannel.com and ToonDisney.com.
Boys are already offered a flood of programming and character-driven marketing, from the DC and Marvel superheroes to Naruto and Ben 10 to SpongeBob and dozens of others. What programming need among boys will you be addressing with this new channel? How will this programming be a fresh offering?
We are developing an entire slate of programming: live action, animation, original movies, comedy and sports-related shows. Each will be geared primarily towards boys age 6-14, and dedicated to reflecting their fundamental value of accomplishment and the desired experience of discovery and empowerment.
Original Disney offerings like Hannah Montana and High School Musical are known for the broad range of related products (clothing, school supplies, etc.) that are marketed alongside the shows/movies. How will this play out with the original series shows (such as Aaron Stone) or movies airing on Disney XD? What sorts of related products will be targeted to viewers of those shows?
“If we provide kids with compelling stories and characters, they will be long-term guests and consumers.” At Disney, our focus is on delivering great content to kids and families. If we are successful in doing so, consumers will drive a demand and thus, opportunities can be created for other Disney divisions.
Six-to-fourteen is a broad age range. Is the idea that boys will start watching at six and slowly graduate up through the programming? How do you keep them as regular viewers of Disney XD as they grow?
Through focus groups and other research methodology, we talk to kids and families every day and that’s the best way to gauge if we’re on track and if necessary, make adjustments based on their feedback. For example, we know kids of all ages are aspirational. We know what they are interested in. Our stories are crafted so they appeal to older kids, especially boys, while also having an “entry point” for younger siblings. If we provide kids with compelling stories and characters, they will be long-term guests and consumers. The attributes that boys find compelling and aspirational in lead characters are: smart, determined, selfless, brave, has room for growth, on a journey, not perfect and has “responsibility.”
This announcement suggests that you’re doing what Disney has long done very well – getting kids to establish brand allegiance at an early age. This is obviously good for business, but do you see any drawbacks in encouraging kids in that direction so early in their lives?
We know with Disney brand, we have a responsibility to kids and families and we take that fact seriously. We work with a mission to deliver content that enriches kids lives and to do so by reflecting core Disney values: community, storytelling, entertainment, innovation, optimism and decency.
How was the experience for you?
I’d never been away from home. My mom and I are really close, so it was a really big thing to not talk to my mom. The whole situation is really stressful. I wasn’t emotionally prepared for that. I couldn’t contact anyone except my boyfriend for three weeks. They made an exception for me to call my mom. The baby’s mom put me in a bad mood, and other things. We were there for three weeks.
Which age group did you enjoy taking care of the most?
I’d have to say the toddler was the funnest – I could talk to him. But there was never an easy part of it. It was all hard, and each stage had its challenges.
Have your feelings about being a mom changed?
I still want to have kids for sure, just not anytime soon. We have a lot of growing up to do.
What did you friends think of you going on the show?
All my friends were very supportive. They didn’t have the same mindset as us. Cory and I are really close to our moms. My mom was 19 or 20 and Cory’s mom was 18 when they had us. My mom wants me to wait, of course. She struggled a lot after having me.
The teenage cast of The Baby Borrowers Do you know friends your age who are having children? What would you say to them?
Practice safe sex, of course. I have a handful of friends who are pregnant. You have to be supportive of them. They made a mistake, but they have to take the responsibility. I mean, they are just kind of saying, if we could plan it, but we didn’t. But they are taking care of their responsibilities.
What did you and Cory learn?
I think we turned into a really good team and we learned a lot about ourselves. I think the show can help a lot of people out. The parent also learned something. We were with the toddler and the parent came to us and said, you taught me that I should get down on the ground with my child more.
How do you respond to critics of the show who think it’s irresponsible for the teen parents to handle these infants?
First of all, the whole thing with the babies, there were nannies on set and the parents were right across the street monitoring every room, and there were paramedics on set all the time. Any time they wanted to intervene, they did. The babies slept at our house. Half the time the parents didn’t get any sleep. Basically, it’s one hundred percent safe.
Was it worth it?
I think it was worth it. Towards the end it was more fun. Our relationship grew stronger.
Photographs by Tommy Baynard.
Copyright 2008 NBC Universal, Inc.