Mixing up-to-the-minute marketing techniques,
tried-and-true entertainment formulas, and
engaging young stars and stories, Disney Channels Worldwide President Richard Ross C’83 is helping
ensure that the company remains supreme in
the kid-entertainment universe.
By Robert Strauss

 

Sept|Oct 09 contents
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Disney's Channeler By Robert Strauss
Illustration by Martha Rich

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©2009 The Pennsylvania Gazette

  In her popular Disney Channel cable television show, Hannah Montana (if you live anywhere in the vicinity of a nine-year-old girl, you have surely seen it), Miley Cyrus plays a teenager with two identities—one as a famous rock star and the other as the daughter of a single father just trying to make it through what passes on TV for a normal life.
Miley Stewart (Cyrus’s regular-girl identity) and her wacky older brother Jackson live in a Malibu beach house with their widowed father, played by Cyrus’s real-life father Billy Ray Cyrus, previously best known for his 1990s-era country music hit “Achy Breaky Heart.” The show’s comedy is a cheerful mix of teen misunderstandings and I Love Lucy slapstick revolving around Miley’s halfhearted efforts to keep her identities separate, with plenty of time left over for “Hannah” to perform her latest hit.

Since premiering on the Disney Channel in March 2006, the series has become a consistent top-rated show (a new episode was the most watched cable show in primetime for the week ending July 5). It’s also spawned hit albums, sold-out live shows and a concert film, a successful theatrical film release this past spring, and an avalanche of branded merchandise—everything from dolls to dried fruit.

Hannah Montana is just the latest example of the Walt Disney Company’s uncanny ability over much of the past century—from the dawn of sound film to the Internet age—to anticipate what kids and teenagers will watch and get enthused by. Having set the standard in theatrical movies and broadcast television, the company has in recent years worked its magic in the burgeoning cable-TV universe, packaging enduring formulas in up-to-the-minute wrapping, and supplying a steady stream of new faces to replace inevitably aging favorites.

For readers of a certain age, the show’s twinning device may recall the 1961 movie The Parent Trap, starring Hayley Mills (or its 1998 remake with a pre-tabloid Lindsay Lohan) in the dual role of sisters separated as infants and raised by their divorced parents, unaware of each other’s existence until they meet at summer camp, switch identities to get a taste of each other’s lives, and eventually engineer their parents’ reunion.

Going back even further, the essential DNA of Disney’s 1950 dreams-come-true classic Cinderella is faintly recognizable in Hannah Montana—though the differences are more telling. No housework, for one thing, and the dream-come-true isn’t a royal marriage anymore but personal empowerment in a life that combines worldwide fame with hometown friends (the “best of both worlds,” as the show’s infectious theme song puts it).

“Disney always seems to find the next star, the next thing. They have found young stars who are almost preternaturally magnetic to young adolescents or old elementary schoolers,” says Jonathan Storm, longtime TV critic for The Philadelphia Inquirer. “In TV, because they throw so many wads of wet paper to the wall, some will stick. But to get such a run as Disney, and now the Disney Channel, has had, that guy Ross must be doing something right.”

“That guy Ross” is Richard Ross C’83, president of Disney Channels Worldwide since April 2004, and an executive with the company since 1996. In his current role, Ross oversees 94 channels available in 163 countries in 32 languages, along with their associated websites, as well as Radio Disney, which is available on 50 stations, satellite radio, iTunes, and mobile phones.

 

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  ©2009 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 7/28/09