For Disney Channel executives, the decision seemed a no-brainer: replace vintage Disney television shows that run in the dead of night with newer, hipper fare targeted to a younger, more lucrative audience.
But the seemingly mundane programming change to replace the "Vault Disney" classics with teen and preteen dramas such as "Lizzie McGuire" and "Kim Possible" has created an uproar among older die-hard Disney fans, who see the move as the latest affront to Walt Disney Co.'s heritage. Internet chat rooms devoted to Disney fans are abuzz with the pending demise of "Vault Disney." Some viewers are penning protest letters to management relating their connection to childhood heroes such as "Zorro." One fan has started a petition in hopes of reversing the decision.
"I'm dumbfounded," said Glendale schoolteacher Sue Schuck, 54, who vowed to sell her Disney stock in protest. "We baby boomers pay for the cable, the admission to Disneyland and the Disney products. We watched these shows. They are part of our childhood."
The decision is simply economics, Disney said. Rather than spending money on airing older shows such as "Spin and Marty" and "Davy Crockett," Disney wants to invest in new programs that resonate with younger audiences.
Targeting younger viewers has spurred the Disney Channel's growth over the last decade, as it moved from a mostly premium, subscriber-fee cable service to a much more widely distributed cable network.
The dispute underscores the dilemma the Burbank entertainment giant faces as it tries to shore up its sagging bottom line: how to keep its brand relevant to younger kids without offending the baby boomers who cling to a very different, often nostalgic vision of the Disney of their childhood.
Such tensions have flared up across Disney's businesses in recent years. Fans, for example, loudly protested a few years ago when the company shut down Mr. Toad's Wild Ride at the Magic Kingdom in Orlando, Fla., one of the original Walt Disney World attractions.
Baby boomers also complained more recently about the newly redesigned Disney Stores catering too heavily to children. Even as Disney spent millions celebrating what would have been founder Walt Disney's 100th birthday last year, some longtime devotees believed the company didn't pay enough homage to him.
"They are trying to walk this tightrope of keeping their classic Disney going and appealing to a younger market and staying contemporary," said Janet Wasko, a professor of communications studies at the University of Oregon and author of two books on Disney. "That's a difficult task for them because there is such emotional attachment to Disney products and characters. People just don't react the same when other companies change their product lines, but Disney is different."
Keeping current has been a major goal of the Disney Channel, whose audience has grown in six years from 14 million households to more than 80 million. In contrast to the struggling ABC TV network, the channel has been an important moneymaker and marketing outlet for the parent company, generating an estimated $250 million in operating income this year, according to some estimates.
Its success stems mainly from a combination of live-action movies and original series, such as "Lizzie McGuire" and "Even Stevens," that target teens and preteens, a demographic coveted by advertisers and retailers.
The channel's latest creation, the animated drama "Kim Possible," tied with market leader Nickelodeon among 6-to 11-year-olds after making its debut in June, according to Nielsen Media Research.
The channel launched "Vault Disney" four years ago as an umbrella for Disney classic television shows from the 1950s and '60s. To make room for the newer entertainment, "Vault Disney" programs were pushed further into the evening and early-morning hours. Ratings dwindled as viewers got tired of seeing the same shows over and over, and Disney focused its energies on developing programs.
By Monday, the 1-to-5-a.m. block will be replaced with reruns of prime-time channel shows. Until then, the channel is running "Davy Crockett" and "Zorro" marathons so fans can watch the final episodes.
Disney Channel executives say they are canceling "Vault Disney" to create consistent programming on a 24-hour basis for kids.
"The Disney Channel is a service for kids and their families; it's not a general entertainment service for everybody," said Richard Ross, president of entertainment for the Disney Channel. "We can't be all things for all people."
To critics who question how many kids would be watching TV at such late hours, Disney executives argue that satellite TV feeds allow millions of viewers to watch these shows earlier in the evening. For example, a teen in L.A. could watch an episode of, say, "Kim Possible" at 10 p.m. by picking up the East Coast feed of the Disney Channel.
Ross denies that the channel is turning its back on its heritage. "This is not a slam on the vault programming," he said.