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Rich Ross has a Mouse ear for 'tween' talent

The Disney Channel president has led TV's pursuit of the 9-to-14-year-old audience, creating wildly popular personalities as well as programs that have muscled their way into mainstream culture.

June 21, 2009|Dawn C. Chmielewski

As the Jonas Brothers took the stage at the Dallas Convention Center on Nov. 18, 2006, the group had little to sing about.

The band's advocate at Columbia Records had left and the label was dropping them. Few gigs loomed on the horizon. But the crowd at the Radio Disney 10th anniversary concert was oblivious to the Jonases' travails. As the group sang "Year 3000," a hit on the station, the audience responded with shrieking enthusiasm.

The reaction caught the attention of Disney Channel President Rich Ross, who had been listening to the performance backstage.

"He ran up to me and said, 'I've never seen anything like this in my life. I want you to know they could be so big,' " recalled Kevin Jonas Sr., the boys' father and manager. "To this day, I look at that moment as the turning point for the Jonas Brothers."

The Jonases, who now boast two platinum albums, their own Disney Channel show, "Jonas," and a 3-D concert movie, are among the youthful stars who owe their big break to Ross, the man who could be called the father of "Tween TV."

Since his arrival as senior vice president of programming in 1996, Ross has transformed Disney Channel from a cable television backwater that ran old films and educational fare into a reliable profit engine for the Walt Disney Co.

But more than that, he led TV's pursuit of the 9-to-14-year-old "tween" audience, creating wildly popular personalities and shows that not only dominate the age group's attention but have muscled their way into mainstream culture: Hilary Duff as "Lizzie McGuire," Miley Cyrus as "Hannah Montana," the "High School Musical" movies and now the Jonas Brothers.

Ross targeted a void in children's television -- the yawning gap between Tigger, Pooh and the Disney princesses, and innuendo-laced prime-time shows. Before Ross' efforts at Disney Channel, no network courted the age group, which influences roughly $43 billion in spending annually.

"They existed. They weren't programmed to," Ross said. "They were either forced to slum off younger stuff or watch what their parents thought was inappropriate." In creating programming for those viewers, Ross helped launch the careers of many of today's most celebrated figures in young Hollywood, including Shia LaBeouf, Zac Efron and Cyrus. He hopes two rising Disney Channel stars, Demi Lovato and Selena Gomez, will succeed Cyrus as tween phenoms.

"In the 20 years I have known Rich, he has always been recognized for his ability to spot talent," said Kevin Huvane, managing partner at Creative Artists Agency, who represents Cyrus. "Rich knows intuitively what is relevant to the marketplace and is tremendously savvy at building programming that resonates with audiences. In doing so, he has helped launch a generation of stars."

The actors and their parents describe him as remarkably approachable and concerned, and his personal touch was on display at the February film premiere of "Jonas Brothers: The 3D Concert Experience." He greeted by name not only proteges such as "Hannah Montana" costar Emily Osment and Madison Pettis, who appeared opposite Dwayne Johnson in Disney's movie "The Game Plan," but also the Jonases' head of security and a Disney photographer.

As the band's black SUV pulled up to the El Capitan Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard, Ross bristled with boyish enthusiasm. "About to be the bedlam," he predicted, flashing a broad smile as the crowd erupted in screams.

A TV for his room

Ross grew up in the 1960s in Eastchester, N.Y., at a time when most families had a single television set in the den and parents fretted about their children's exposure to the "idiot box." At the age of 9, he requested what then was considered taboo: a television for his room. He still remembers meeting his father's train one night and seeing him carrying a large TV box. When Ross ripped it open, he discovered not a television, but a puppy.

"I looked at it and said, 'This is a dog. Where's the TV?' " Ross said. "I was sort of inconsolable. So, within a couple of months, they got me the TV."

Each night, Ross would do his homework watching shows such as "Mayberry R.F.D." and fall asleep hearing "The Merv Griffin Show" echoing through the ventilation system from the den. He grew to share his father Marty's love of comedy and a curiosity about the New York end of the industry. While other kids at summer camp were reading Sports Illustrated, he received Daily Variety.

Merv Griffin would end up giving Ross his big break in television -- albeit indirectly. The entertainer's bookkeeper was a friend of Ross' mother, Harriet, and she arranged an interview for the 19-year-old Ross with Griffin's representative, the William Morris Agency in New York, where he was hired to work in the mail room.

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