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Disney Channel Eyes Big Ratings for ‘HSM2’

The countdown has begun in earnest.

Months, weeks and days have finally given way until only hours remain before the 8 p.m. Disney Channel debut of High School Musical 2 tonight. Actually, tweens, younger kids and their parents will have three chances this weekend to view the sequel to the telefilm High SchoolMusical that has become a global cultural and merchandising phenomenon.

The choices are varied. The Friday night showing will be preceded by a The Suite Life of Zack & Cody marathon and followed by a sneak preview of the upcoming animated series Phineas and Ferb and then a fresh Hannah Montana installment, featuring the Jonas Brothers. As for the movie itself, production elements will showcase cast members and director/choreographer Kenny Ortega in a BBQ setting. On Saturday, the telefilm should benefit from a Hannah marathon lead-in. The movie, meanwhile, will be wrapped in a “Wildcat Chat,” showing fan video questions and cast answers to results stemming from the “HSM2 Play Your Part” element, which has pulled in 44 million responses, according to Disney officials.

The “Sing-Along” version, led by a Corey in the House marathon sounds on Sunday night. Fans have opportunity to download the lyrics from the channel's Web site or merely sing to the words as they appear on screen.

Disney Channel executives, no doubt, would prefer that viewers' preferred choice would be tuning in all three. That way they can get an early read on whether HSM2 can approach the enormous popularity of the original. After racking up 7.7 million viewers during its Jan. 20, 2006 debut, HSM’s dancing and singing has barely stopped. In July, an encore performance grabbed 5.8 million viewers, making it cable's top film for the month. All told, 24 U.S. airings have averaged 4.7 million viewers. Moreover, Disney officials report that the telefilm has been seen by some 200 million unduplicated watchers worldwide.

But the network’s executives are not in the handicapping business. Spokeswoman Patti McTeague wouldn’t bite on questions about whether this weekend's blitz would cume 25 million or 30 million viewers She did concede that with the HSM2 three-pack and the other programming, Disney Channel stands a good chance of wearing cable’s primetime ratings crown for a sixth consecutive week.

“I think we can say that,” she said. “It’s up to the kids.”