Disney Goes to 'School'

When the Disney Channel's original movie High School Musical made its sizzling premiere in January 2006, its ratings success shocked even the network executives who brought the project to the small screen. After all, it wasn't easy to predict that high school kids singing to resolve their dramas might somehow be cool to the iPhone generation. “There hadn't been an original musical for kids or about kids on TV for a long time,” recalls Michael Healy, Disney Channel's senior VP of original movies. “We had no idea how the audience would respond.”

The response, of course, was overwhelming. High School Musical attracted an impressive 7.8 million viewers and 3.1 million kids 6-11, according to Nielsen Media Research. Even more stunning, last August's sequel, High School Musical 2, notched a sizzling 17.2 million viewers, making it the most-watched non-sports cable show of all time. (Only a New England Patriots-Baltimore Ravens NFL football game on sister network ESPN in December 2007 ranks higher, with 17.5 million viewers.) In Disney's core kid demo, HSM2 attracted a whopping 6.1 million viewers.

The ratings are impressive, but the real triumph comes in Disney's ability to live beyond the initial sizzle. Most Disney pics repeat extraordinarily well, which is crucial for a cable network to amortize its investment in original programming. “Movies used to be a one-time thing, but Disney has found a way to make a new business out of them,” says TV historian Tim Brooks, a former Lifetime Networks research chief.

June's Camp Rock, for example, debuted to 8.9 million viewers, fueled no doubt in part by its stars, the teen music sensation The Jonas Brothers. The movie now ranks as the network's No. 2 original of all time. When ratings were extended to include viewing within 7 days, the audience jumped to 10.1 million viewers.

Further increasing their value, some of Disney Channel's best, like High School Musical, become the seed for a valuable franchise. And movies help build general viewers for the network, since a number of characters are stars of Disney Channel shows, such as Cheetah Girls' Raven Simone of That's So Raven fame. And former Lizzie McGuire star Hilary Duff went on to star in the Disney hit Cadet Kelly.

Of course, not all extensions measure up. To further extend the High School Musical mania, Disney's broadcast sister ABC aired a reality show this summer to land a spot in the musical's traveling show. Ratings have been modest, with the four July episodes averaging about 3.4 million viewers.

But HSM has been a boon for parent Walt Disney Co., fueling cottage industries for other Disney arms, including its music division, licensing for everything from T-shirts to pencils, and those traveling stage shows. During this year, Disney projects that High School Musical-related products will reach $650 million in retail sales. To date, the original and sequel combined have sold about 20 million DVDs; the HSM soundtrack has sold 4.8 million discs, while its sequel's soundtrack has sold 3.4 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

However, Disney Channel itself cannot cash in with product placements in the movies. As part of the network's commercial-free charter, it does not accept any products in its programming.

Since 2002, Disney has televised about a half-dozen original movies per year. Disney develops its movies for its core 6-to-11-year-old viewer, but the network also wants the programming to appeal to tweens (9-to-14-year-olds), older teen siblings and parents. To increase the appeal, the movies' stars are often a bit older than the core kid and tween viewers, like High School Musical stars Vanessa Hudgins, 19, and Zac Efron, 20. “We want kids to look up to the heroes of the films,” Healy explains.


With all the success comes the pressure to follow up with more popular stories and fresh-faced stars. The network's core audience is more elusive than ever, lured away by entertainment options ranging from their cellphones to the Internet to gaming consoles like the Wii. To grab viewers, “We need to find stories that kids connect with and stars they fall in love with,” Healy says.

Leaving nothing to chance, Disney is also strongly embracing the new technologies its viewers use so much. The network has a robust Website with content from its movies and series. Those movies can also be downloaded from Apple's iTunes store. “We want to be everywhere kids are,” Healy says.

Toward that end, coming in late August will be the third installment of the Cheetah Girls movie franchise; Cheetah Girls: One World is set in India with a lot of Bollywood-style music and dance. Disney typically signs up its talent for sequels in advance, to ensure it keeps costs down and production schedules tight in case a movie warrants a follow-up. An average production ranges from $3 million to $5 million; sequels or films with big-name talent might top that.

While building franchises and commercial extensions generates ancillary benefits, Healy explains that the network sets out each time with a simple goal: “Every project starts with having a great story. We do stories about [empowered] kids changing their own lives and making their own decisions.”

“Disney has found programming that is good and clean but yet contemporary,” adds TV historian Brooks. “They've latched onto the notion that a lot of Americans, including teens, want a world that is a little safer and a little more positive.”