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Enough with the girls, tween boys get their own brand of Disney love

August 07, 2008|Dawn C. Chmielewski | Times Staff Writer

Someday, Disney hopes its princes will come.

The entertainment giant, which has made billions catering to the princess fantasies of young girls, plans to relaunch Toon Disney as Disney XD, a cable channel that will target boys. The move, under wraps for more than a year, is an attempt by the company to capture a market that has long eluded it.

Starting in February, Disney XD will seek to become to young dudes what Disney Channel, with its lineup of tweeny bopper programs such as "High School Musical," "Hannah Montana" and "Camp Rock" is to girls. Disney XD, aiming at boys ages 6 to 14, will offer original action-adventure and comedy series, movies, animation and sports-themed shows developed with Walt Disney Co.-owned ESPN.

"What was clear to me, and clear to us, is we had a huge opportunity to create content that were boys' favorites," said Rich Ross, president of Disney Channels Worldwide.

Tween boys, ages 9 to 14, account for about $50 billion in spending worldwide, said Greg Kahn, senior vice president of strategic insights for media buying firm Optimedia International USA Inc. Advertisers are eager to reach these young consumers, not just snag a portion of their disposable income, but to build a loyalty they hope will extend into even more free-spending teen years, he said.

But the Disney Channel has struggled for years to find the right programming formula to lure boys, who tend to gravitate to Viacom's Nickelodeon and Time Warner's Cartoon Network -- that is, when they're not spending time playing video games. Disney Channel's popular live-action shows, from its early tween phenomenon, "Lizzie McGuire," through its current pop-culture sensation, "Hannah Montana," mainly attract girls.

Efforts to bring in more boys, through male-led series such as "Even Stevens" or "The Suite Life of Zack and Cody," still haven't succeeded enough to close the gender gap between female and male viewers.

Animation, traditionally a draw for boys, has been a struggle for Disney Channel, although its newest series, "Phineas and Ferb," appears to be building a strong male following. But so far, the network has failed to produce a blockbuster to compete with Nickelodeon's "SpongeBob SquarePants"; or match the guy-centric focus of Cartoon Network, which one ad buyer described as the ESPN of animation.

"You're fighting the brand perception, the very, very strong brand equity that's been in the marketplace for many, many years," Kahn said of Disney Channel. "It would almost require a completely separate effort to reach tween boys, with a completely different name somehow associated with the Disney property, to reach these tween males."

None of this is news to Ross, who, with his executive team, spent more than a year with focus groups pondering the eternal verities: "What do boys want?"

The answer, perhaps not surprisingly, is that boys want it all. "What we heard, loud and clear, is they expect from Disney this broad array," Ross said, with programs running the gamut from animation to action-adventure to comedy. "They expect from Disney the whole thing, including movies." In short, tween boys are looking for more than a show or two wedged in the midst of the musical theater-inspired programs that have come to define Disney Channel. They want, Disney says, a channel they can call their own.

"They want a place, essentially a headquarters for them where their favorite content exists, that has this broad array of shapes and sizes and tenors and complexities, and treats them with the respect that Disney Channel treats all kids, and the girls are fanatical about," Ross said.

Instead of tinkering with what works -- Disney Channel, which has spawned two billion-dollar creative franchises in High School Musical and Hannah -- Ross relaunched a struggling cable asset, Toon Disney, into this destination for boys.

Toon Disney pulls only 10% to 15% of the viewers of Disney Channel, despite the cable network's reach into nearly 70 million U.S. households. The Nielsen ratings reflect its hodgepodge lineup of geriatric kids shows, such as "Power Rangers Jungle Fury" and recycled animated offerings such as "Batman: The Animated Series," and "Jackie Chan Adventures," and movies.

As the rebranded Disney XD, the ad-supported cable network will boast original series, such as "Aaron Stone," a live-action show about a video game virtuoso who leads a secret double life as a crime fighter. The show boils down to a male fantasy version of "Hannah Montana," in which an ordinary teen leads a double life as a rock star.

Former "The Wonder Years" child star Fred Savage directed the pilot for "Mongoose & Luther," a mock documentary series about two best friends who set out to become the world's greatest skateboarders.

The project was created by Matt Dearborn and Tom Burkhard, who worked on Disney Channel's "Even Stevens."

Established animated series, from "Phineas and Ferb," to "Batman: The Animated Series," will air on Disney XD alongside new offerings, such as RoboDz, a short-form series developed in partnership with Toei Animation Co. of Japan, in which robotic life forms defend Earth from space invaders. Plans for an online presence and mobile offerings are also in the works.

"We know we have a huge opportunity to take that asset and make it every bit as powerful as Disney Channel or Playhouse Disney," Ross said.

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dawn.chmielewski@latimes.com

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