The success of Disney Channel’s multifaceted marketing of High School Musical hits the right notes with cable ops. Catherine Applefeld Olson The success of Disney Channel’s multifaceted marketing of High School Musical hits the right notes with cable ops. The National Show is like cable’s Super Bowl – everybody’s there and face time with the right people can clinch deals. Amidst this pressure-filled atmosphere, more than a few executives made questionable career moves during April’s National Show, spending precious time serpentining around the huge Disney-ESPN booth. "My daughter told me not to come home if I didn’t get autographs from the High School Musical cast," says an exec whose response is typical of the men and women spotted in line. The HSM groupie factor grew exponentially when the cast took a break from the show floor for a private meet and greet at Cox’s nearby headquarters. Cast members signed autographs for employees’ kids and indulged photo opportunities with many of the 250 people who crammed the room. Cox executives tend to gush over High School Musical nearly as much as their children do. After all, nothing increases the value of a network for a cable operator like a supremely well-marketed hit show. "Coming from a house with twin 12-year-old girls who lost their minds over High School Musical, I may not have an impartial perspective," jokes Bob Wilson, Cox’s SVP of programming. "Seriously, Disney obviously tapped a highly sensitive nerve in the psyche of Disney Channel viewers that helps validate the significant license fee we pay that funds such productions. I give Disney all the credit for taking the risk and bringing such a monster hit to fruition. I trust they’ll let distributors like us fully realize the return on our investment." That return continues to swell since HSM‘s Jan. 20 premiere. Riding the wake of HSM, Disney Channel delivered its best May Nielsen ratings with a 2.3 total day for kids 6-11, and 1.9 for tweens 9-14. In prime time, it scored 4.2 with the 6-11 crowd and 3.4 with tweens. Delivery among all viewers was 1.2 in total day, 2.1 in prime. But the HSM hoopla isn’t entirely child’s play. The bebopping story of a basketball star and bookish beauty who surmount stereotypes and audition for the school play didn’t succeed by mistake. But how did Disney deliver a stunning 36.5 million unique viewers for its dozen HSM showings (Jan. 20-April 21)? The answer lies in a production that, like Grease, nails universal teen experiences in a lighthearted way, but is neither condescending nor corny. Then there’s a marketing strategy steeped in traditional cable but nimble enough to crisscross among platforms. Disney’s aim was dead-on, targeting core viewers where they live: in front of the TV, attached to an earbud and on the Internet. Triple-play promos on Disney Channel, Radio Disney and Disney Channel’s website continue to play an enormous role in this still-evolving story. Act One:
Keep It in the Family

While HSM‘s numbers elicit thanks from cable execs, it’s important to note the film is the latest extrapolation of a vertical music strategy Disney has been fine-tuning for six years. "We spent the last part of the ’90s basically turning other people’s performers into stars," says Gary Marsh, Disney Channel president of entertainment, citing the network’s role in boosting the careers of Aaron Carter and Christina Aguilera, among others. "Now we are only interested in doing that kind of promotion for those who are part of our own brand equity." Witness Disney’s signing of That’s So Raven star Raven-Symone, Lizzie McGuire alter ego Hilary Duff and, most recently, HSM starlet Vanessa Hudgens to its own Hollywood Records label. And while HSM‘s success has been tremendous, it wasn’t a bolt from the blue. It’s the 61st Disney Channel Original Movie (DCOM) – a franchise that has dominated ratings among kids and tweens for the past five years. Of HSM‘s viewers, 10.3 million were aged 6-11, and 11.1 million were 9-14. Yet Disney execs can’t pinpoint precisely what sent this particular movie through the roof. "We didn’t do it differently, we just did it perfectly," Marsh says. "We had world-class music and casting that was spot-on, plus the storytelling was relatable to everyone." Perhaps it was the integration of visual entertainment and music. Today’s youths demand that, Marsh says. Of course not every network has a sister record company. Nevertheless, Disney’s learned it lessons. New Disney series Hannah Montana, starring Miley Cyrus and her "Achy Breaky" dad Billy Ray, is the "quintessential gauge for that," Marsh says. Hannah, which debuted the same weekend as HSM, was the highest-rated series premiere for a kid-targeted channel since Nickelodeon’s SpongeBob SquarePants in 1999. The music-infused Hannah series is the network’s top show.
 
Act Two:
Start With Music & Shaq

For all its movies, Marsh says Disney tries to deliver something unique and unexpected. While nearly every exec in the business would use similar language, Disney/ABC SVP of brand marketing Adam Sanderson says the company felt it really had something special with HSM‘s music. With music as HSM‘s base, Disney brought in choreographer/director Kenny Ortega, whose credits include Dirty Dancing and the Olympics opening ceremonies. The music became the nexus of the launch strategy. With an album’s worth of strong original songs ready, Disney Channel made two key marketing moves. For the first time it licensed music to iTunes, doing so several weeks before the cable premiere. It also began selling the CD off its website before HSM‘s linear premiere. As the music took hold, Disney supported HSM‘s back-to-back premiere nights by posting song lyrics on the Disney Channel site after the first showing. The site received a record 1.2 million unique visitors within a day of the premiere. The lyrics were downloaded more than 500,000 times. The next step was to use music to up the cool factor for boys by creating a music video for "Getcha Head in Da Game," one of the movie’s six gold-certified singles, starring NBA icon Shaquille O’Neal. "This was a key part of the strategy, to bring boys in and give them permission to be part of the experience," Sanderson says. Act Three:
Give MSOs Something to Sing About

Each distributor seems to have a special HSM memory. "It’s uniquely a success for cable because it’s a clear demonstration of how a successful cable movie can be packaged to take advantage of multiple products from operators," says Steven Barringer, Cox manager of employee communications. "Viewers watched this movie on cable, likely recorded it on their DVRs, downloaded the soundtrack and searched the characters via high-speed Internet." For Cablevision, HSM has been a boon to digital service. Subscribers of Cablevision’s iO digital offering were able to catch HSM one week before its linear premiere, and the payoff was big. Cablevision chalked up an 870% increase in VOD buy-ins. Thanks to VOD programming like HSM, today 70% of customers have given iO a try, the highest penetration in the country, says Theresa Chillianis, Cablevision’s VP of business strategy. Thanks to Disney’s marketing muscle, video newcomer Verizon also saw HSM become its most popular on-demand title for January and February. "Despite our giving [viewers] no advance warning, it shot to the top in all categories," notes Tricia Lynch, director of FiOS TV programming. FiOS subs also were able to watch HSM one week prior to its linear premiere.
Fired up by HSM‘s success, Verizon this summer put money into a campaign that promotes FiOS’ extensive Disney/ESPN/ABC VOD library. The effort informs consumers that the service is one of the only places to get VOD premieres of Disney movies like Cheetah Girls 2, showing in August on Disney Channel.
 
Act Four:
Extend The Brand

While HSM will spark inevitable parroting (see Roundup), Disney admits it’s doing some self-perpetuating. Cheetah Girls 2, which started life as a performance-based movie like the original, morphed into a full-blown musical. "We found a way to take the musical momentum from High School Musical and overlay it on to Cheetah Girls 2," Marsh says. Indeed, Cheetah Girls 2 looks and sounds a lot like HSM. It should – Ortega’s overseeing the film, which stars Raven-Symone. Offscreen, Disney has been sounding a relentless HSM refrain with a swirl of ancillary goodies it hopes will keep the property hot until a sequel arrives in January. As of mid-June, Disney had sold 1.7 million HSM DVDs. The soundtrack – the year’s No. 1 album thus far – shipped triple platinum (3.5 million units), with an additional 93,901 albums purchased digitally. Scholastic’s High School Musical – Junior Novel reached No. 2 on The New York Times best-seller list, and Disney Mobile Studios has licensed ringtones to multiple wireless providers. Disney Theatrical Productions began licensing the script for local student theater productions (more than 15,000 inquiries have been logged online), and is assessing options for a professional stage production. Disney Consumer Products launched a line of HSM apparel, posters and stationery in June at Limited 2 and Justice stores, and the HSM Hal Leonard sheet music for piano, guitar and vocal has outsold projections by a factor of 8. Exhaling after rattling off this laundry list of ventures, Sanderson sums up Disney Channel’s modus operandi: "We look at everything we do as a consumer touch point for kids. They watch TV, they listen to music, they play games, they read magazines and books, they shop at the mall. You need to be in all those places to sustain a franchise." BabyFirstTV
Launch Date: May 2006
Owner: Regency Enterprises, Bellco Capital
Management: Sharon Rechter, EVP, development & marketing
Subscribers: Available nationally on DirecTV and Dish
Designed for the 3-and-under set, BabyFirstTV is ruffling feathers among some child development experts but continues to add content and subscribers. Most of the commercial-free programming is licensed, some culled from existing DVD series like classical-music-heavy Brainy Baby and Baby’s First Impressions. Cartoon Network
Launch Date: October 1992
Owner: Turner Broadcasting System
Management: Jim Samples, GM; Bob Higgins, SVP, programming
Subscribers: 89 million
Top Shows: Ben 10 (pictured), Xiaolin Showdown, Naruto
Cartoon’s edgy animated characters don’t often break out in song. But even the home of zany cartoons is getting into the groove post-HSM. October will see the launch of Class of 3000, a series set at a school for the musically gifted in Atlanta. Each episode will feature a new song from co-creator Andre 3000 of OutKast. And the multiplatform bells are chiming. "We’re working with Jive Records to figure out the strategy of getting these songs out there into the mainstream," says Bob Higgins, SVP of programming and original animation. "We really want the CD to go hand in hand with the program launch." Even for its shows sans music, the success of HSM clearly has whet Cartoon’s appetite for prime-time movies. Premiering Aug. 11 is the two-hour Kids Next Door: Operation Zero, the first Cartoon movie since The Powerpuff Girls in 2002. "We’re hoping to do a number of them a year," Higgins says. A movie based on The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy will follow in Q1 2007. Discovery Kids
Launch Date: October 1996
Ownership: Discovery Communications Inc.
Subscribers: 45 million
Management: Marjorie Kaplan, EVP/GM
Top Shows: Trading Spaces: Boys vs. Girls,
Endurance (pictured), Flight 29 Down
Fresh from ending its relationship with NBC, digital channel Discovery Kids is throwing itself into program development. At least 20 new series are pegged for fall and winter. Music will figure prominently in some of them. Live-action newcomer Hip Hop Harry educates through heavy repetition of rhyme and dance moves, while returning animated series ToddWorld features live concert footage by children’s duo Milkshake interspersed with animation. Disney Channel
Launch Date: April 1983
Ownership: The Walt Disney Co.
Subscribers: 88 million
Management: Rich Ross, president of Disney Channel Worldwide; Gary Marsh, president of entertainment, Disney Channel Worldwide; Scott Garner, SVP, programming, Disney Channel; Matt Palmer, SVP, marketing, Disney Channel; Ben Pyne, president, Disney/ESPN affiliate sales and marketing
Top Shows: Hannah Montana, The Suite Life of Zack & Cody, That’s So Raven (pictured)
Disney’s music strategy penetrates deep. Preschool block Playhouse Disney series Little Einsteins was founded on the concept of introducing kids to classical music, while The Doodlebops is about a fantasy band. Disney also is expanding its short-form Johnny & the Sprites to a regular series this fall. It stars Broadway veteran John Tartaglia. Numerous prime-time shows like Even Stevens and That’s So Raven have done special musical episodes. Though entertainment president Gary Marsh says the network could never afford to make a weekly series of the HSM caliber, look for the musical thread to run through upcoming original movie Cheetah Girls 2 and other event programs.
  HBO Family
Launch Date: December 1996
Owner: Time Warner
Management: Sheila Nevins, president, HBO documentary and family programming; Dolores Morris, VP, HBO Family and documentary programming
Subscribers: 30 million
Top Shows: Little Lulu, Babar, Tintin,
Classical Baby (pictured)

HBO’s commercial-free multiplexed family net runs original and licensed series. Its original specials are some of its best work, including the Emmy-winning Classical Baby, Emmy-nominated I Have Tourette’s But Tourette’s Doesn’t Have Me and upcoming The Music in Me, which showcases kids from around the U.S. who have a passion for music. ION Media Networks
Launch Date: September 2006
Owner: ION Media Networks (51%), NBC Universal, Scholastic Media, Classic Media/Big Idea and Nelvana
Management: Brandon Burgess, CEO, ION Networks; Deborah Forte, president, Scholastic Media; Eric Ellenbogen, CEO, Classic Media; Doug Murphy, EVP, business development, Nelvana
The bilingual, 24/7 kids diginet will surface in September. The as-yet-unnamed service is also earmarked for VOD and Internet distribution. PBS Kids Sprout
Launch Date: April 2005 (VOD), September 2005 (linear channel)
Ownership: Comcast, HIT Entertainment, PBS, Sesame Workshop
Management: Andrew Beecham, SVP, programming
Subscribers: 20 million
Top Shows: Sesame Street, Bob the Builder, Barney & Friends (pictured)
Education and music culture have mixed well for years on Sesame Street. PBS’ sister diginet keeps the beat with that venerable show plus other music-heavy series like The Good Night Show and Barney & Friends, which this fall will introduce a new dinosaur for the first time in 13 years – a musical ‘saurus aptly named Riff. "We know that when kids aren’t watching, they’re still listening," says Andrew Beecham, SVP of programming. "Our network was designed around a strong musical theme that not only accompanies IDs and bumpers, but also features strongly in promotional campaigns." The network groups song segments from shows like Dragon Tales, Make Way for Noddy and Sesame Street into music video blocks. Nickelodeon
Launch Date: April 1979
Ownership: Viacom Inc.
Management: Tom Ascheim, EVP/GM, Nickelodeon Television; Cyma Zarghami, president, Nickelodeon/MTVN Kids & Family Group
Subscribers: 90-plus million
Top Shows: SpongeBob SquarePants, Fairly OddParents, Go, Diego! Go! (pictured)
Nickelodeon’s musical prowess is evinced by the fact that sister Nick Records has become the third-largest children’s label in just 18 months. Music resonates through the Nick Jr. preschool block, with series like The Wonder Pets, which is written opera style, and The Backyardigans, which introduces a different musical style each episode.
"When you’re little and uninhibited, watching music-filled shows is just joyful. To us grownups, Wonder Pets is opera because some of the story is sung and people don’t talk so much," says Nickelodeon Television’s Tom Ascheim. "Kids get quickly to the point where musicals seem a little weird, and it’s not clear to me what the formula is for when the music feels terrific versus when it feels dorky," he adds. Still, we wonder, might there be a musical in Nick’s future? Ascheim remains tight-lipped but will confirm the network is developing an animated series about a superhero with an alter ego who wants to be a musical comedy star. Noggin
Launch Date: February 1999
Ownership: Viacom Inc.
Management: Tom Ascheim, EVP/GM, Nickelodeon TV; Amy Friedman, SVP/creative director; Kenny Miller, VP, production and programming; Sarah Tomassi Lindman, VP, production and programming
Subscribers: 49 million
Top Shows: Pinky Dinky Doo (pictured), 64 Zoo Lane, Jack’s Big Music Show

The Daily

Subscribe

Doing Good

Lifetime announced “Gift of a Lifetime,” part of the net’s pro-social giveback initiative partnering with charities to identify five women and their families to receive the “gift of a lifetime”

Read the Full Issue
The Skinny is delivered on Tuesday and focuses on the cable profession. You'll stay in the know on the headlines, topics and special issues you value most. Sign Up