The Disney Channel isn't just for kids anymore.
For the last five years, the cable company has aggressively pursued preteen, teen-age and adult audiences and won them, thanks to a rad, hip "Mickey Mouse Club," classic Hollywood films, vintage TV spectaculars and series and specials geared to baby boomers and even their parents.
The 7-year-old Disney Channel now has more than 4 million subscribers and broadcasts 24 hours daily, seven days a week. Approximately three out of 10 subscribers don't have children under 12, and one-quarter have no children under 18.
"What our goal has been is to appeal to all segments of the household," said Disney Channel President John Cooke. "If you're really going to be a family service channel, what ought to happen is in the mornings preschoolers ought to be entertained, preteens and teens in the afternoons, families from 6 to 9 p.m. and adults from 9 p.m. on."
The Disney Channel has bolstered the ratings of its 4-6 p.m. lineup thanks to the success of the new "Mickey Mouse Club," which began last April.
"Viewership of preteens and teens has gone up 70%," Cooke said. "We've received over 60,000 letters from viewers since last April."
The new "Mickey Mouse Club," which airs weekdays at 5:30 p.m., is a contemporary, slicker version of the classic T50s series. There's nary a set of Mouseketeer ears in sight but plenty of moussed hair and trendy gear. Stephen Fields, senior vice president of original programming, admitted the channel was a little nervous mounting the series because another revamped "Mickey Mouse Club" had failed a decade ago.
"I think we learned some things that they did and didn't do," Fields said. "Our goals were to produce a show that was very much in the spirit of the original, that respected kids, was entertaining and featured kids that kids at home could relate to. Some of the kids have little training, some have professional experience, but they're real kids."
During the 6-9 p.m. time period, the Disney Channel premieres new series, made-for-TV movies and family films, including a vintage Shirley Temple film every month.
"It's one of the great family movie libraries in existence," said Bruce Rider, senior vice president of programming. "For four years, you'll only be able to see the great Shirley Temple films on Disney."
A caveat: You'll only see the colorized versions of the T30s musicals featuring the mop-topped actress.
"We felt it was an enhanced viewing experience, especially for young kids who are not used to seeing black and white," Rider said. "We think it's a much better viewing experience."
The Disney Channel also has scored great critical success with the projects of Canadian film maker Kevin Sullivan. His award-winning miniseries "Anne of Green Gables" and "Anne of Avonlea" have proved very popular with subscribers.
"We've gotten a substantial number of letters from the last three years saying, TPlease play more of "Anne of Green Gables," please make more of "Anne of Green Gables." ' We found a need out there from our audience for this kind of entertainment," Rider said.
Disney complied with its viewers wishes. Premiering Monday at 8 p.m. is its new weekly series "Avonlea." Like "Anne of Green Gables" and "Anne of Avonlea," the 13-part comedy-drama is based on the stories of Canadian author Lucy Maud Montgomery.
"We wanted to capture the same drama, warmth, beauty and scenery and feeling from the miniseries," Rider said. "We think Kevin Sullivan's captured it. We think it's a great chance for families to sit down and watch TV."
The Disney Channel has grown savvy in its adult programming. The channel brought humorist Garrison Keillor's acclaimed radio show "Prairie Home Companion" to TV and has aired several more specials featuring the shy Minnesotan. Disney hopes it has found the next Keillor in National Public Radio's Mike Feldman. The channel unveils Feldman's half-hour comedy series, "Whad' Ya Know?," Sunday at 9:30 p.m. The series continues every Sunday through March.
"Here you've got an immensely talented man with a great sense of timing," Cooke said. "This is a marvelous personality to put on evenings at 9. We want to be flexible enough to maybe use him in more than one format, so we're trying to find out ways we can continue to use him."
The Disney Channel also dusted off, restored and presented Fred Astaire's Emmy Award-winning TV specials from the late T50s and early T60s and just completed a three-month run of the classic British T60s musical series, "Ready Steady Go!," featuring concert footage of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Animals and the Dave Clark 5. Beginning in April, Disney will air every other month for the next two years one of Frank Sinatra's 13 classic TV specials.
Cooke said that after the Disney Channel aired the three Astaire specials, viewers and critics stood up and took notice of their programming. "I think it was a bit of an eye opener. People said, TI didn't know the Disney Channel was doing that sort of thing." '