Disney's Marsh Takes It One 'Cheetah' At A Time

As Disney Channel Worldwide's president of entertainment, Gary Marsh heads up development and production of all original programming, from Disney Channel series such as That's So Raven and The Suite Life of Zack & Cody to Playhouse Disney preschool fare that includes Mickey Mouse Clubhouse and Higglytown Heroes. Marsh also oversees the Disney Channel Original Movie franchise, which has produced more than 60 movies including the hit High School Musical and, most recently, The Cheetah Girls 2. Marsh answered questions from Multichannel News via e-mail about Disney Channel's strategy as it heads into the fall programming season. An edited transcript follows:

MCN: Faced with market leader Nick Jr., how is Playhouse Disney going about attracting preschool viewers?

Gary Marsh: Our focus is on doing what we do best — that is, super-serving preschoolers, their parents and caregivers with Disney-quality entertainment, guided by a multilevel, learning-focused curriculum.

MCN: Was the animated Handy Manny with its Latino hero partly a response to Nick Jr's Dora the Explorer and Go, Diego, Go!? And how is Disney Channel serving an increasingly multicultural audience?

GM: Multiculturalism is part of Disney Channel's DNA. Series like Handy Manny aim to create stories that are relevant to, and reflective of, a diverse community — in this case, the Hispanic community. At the same time, however, Handy Manny does not just target Latinos; it is multicultural in its spirit and focus.

Playhouse Disney also includes daily episodes of preschool series where characters become aware of — and learn to value — the differences they encounter … in race, color, gender, shape, size and ability.

For older kids, [last week] we announced The Cheetah Girls 2, a Disney Channel original movie filmed in Barcelona and infused with Latin themes and music, will be closed-captioned in Spanish and English for its premiere telecast on [Aug. 25]; and, marking Hispanic Heritage Month, will be televised entirely in Spanish with English subtitles on Friday, Sept. 15.

MCN: What is the rationale behind Disney Channel's steady stream of original films?

GM: Since 1997, we have presented over 60 movie titles in the DCOM [Disney Channel Original Movies] franchise. By and large, DCOMs are the backbone of Disney Channel's primetime schedule, and across all basic cable they dominate the ratings, having produced basic-cable's No. 1 movie with kids 6-11 and tweens for 2002, 2003 and 2004 and 2005.

MCN: How do you explain the huge success of the original movie High School Musical?

GM: Phenomena can't be explained — they can only be experienced.

But it truly is awe-inspiring to know that over 37 million people have seen it through the 13 airings on Disney Channel U.S. alone, and that it's the No. 1 album of the year thus far, selling upwards of 3 million CDs.

MCN: Will Cheetah Girls 2 succeed at that level?

GM: Even I wouldn't dare to dream that big!

MCN: Will there be a third Cheetah Girls movie?

GM: We take one Cheetah at a time.

MCN: What are the key elements for series that hit with young viewers, and what upcoming Disney Channel shows are you excited about along those lines?

GM: At the core of all our successful series are three things: relatable characters; honest, age-appropriate emotional portrayals; and great comedy.

That's why we're so excited about The Replacements, an animated series in September and Cory in the House for January.

MCN: Come fall, Nick Jr. programming will be off CBS and Discovery Kids will no longer be providing kids' content to NBC. What is Disney Channel's strategy when it comes to feeding programming to ABC Kids on Saturdays?

GM: Geared towards viewers age 2-11, the lineup delivers popular series to kid viewers in non-cable homes and, conversely, delivers to the ABC Television Network each series' widely established fan base from [The Walt Disney Co.'s] wholly owned basic cable channels.

MCN: In terms of how the company parses out its various properties to ABC on Saturday mornings …

GM: As of September, our kids programming will not air on ABC Family. 'Jetix' programming block will have a dedicated TV platform, Toon Disney, and some series will air on the ABC Television Network on Saturday morning.

MCN: What kind of response has Disney Channel had with putting series fare on your broadband Web site?

GM: We launched full episodes on DisneyChannel.com in early June and since then have seen an average of 1.1 million daily unique visitors, generating 1.7 billion page views and 105 million total visits. Nearly 40 million episodes have been accessed online.

MCN: What's the next platform to explore?

GM: We are constantly researching and looking towards the future of where kids are going in terms of digital platforms. They multitask using an array of different devices, so our focus is not necessarily based on a specific platform but on our key consumers and their needs as well as what is appropriate for our brands.