September 16, 2007
The Disney Channel: Educating Children for a Transmediated World

The Disney Channel has provided an interesting case study throughout cable television history. From its early launch on cable in 1983, to its switch from a premium cable channel to a basic cable channel, to its continued reinventions and rebranding with each new generation of viewers, the outline provides yet another interesting form of study into one of the most important players in the entertainment and media industries, not just in the United States, but around the world.

In Disney TV, J.P. Telotte examines the history of Disney on television, particularly focusing on Walt Disney's early television shows and their relationship to the theme park. The book was required reading in Henry Jenkins' class on the media industries that I took back in 2005, and I found it to be a great model for an intense, narrowly focused, and concise take on a media company.

I was intrigued, then, when a friend of the Consortium, Erica George, contacted me a few weeks ago about a piece Danny Silverman had written for his AgBlog about Disney's method for creating and marketing stars through the Disney Channel in the contemporary age.

Danny works at the Berkman Center, appears to be my age, and has done quite a few interesting things in his time, including getting published in Salon based on an interesting controversy while he was in high school (look here.

The highlights of Danny's examination of the Disney Channel is this:

Another Disney innovation is a throwback to the age of big studios. The network hand picks its acting talent and develops new stars. While it is easy for adults to distinguish between an actor and the character he plays, such distinctions can be lost on younger viewers. Disney counters this by grooming up-and-coming actors into Disney properties. Ashley Tisdale, for example, had several small roles and guest spots before landing The Suite Life of Zack and Cody on the Disney Channel for 69 episodes. But rather than being limited to this one character, Tisdale also appeared, like other Disney stars, in short programs and interstitials on the network, playing herself. [ . . . ] Disney stars are also cross medium, a phenomenon that is by no means new but which Disney has nearly perfected."

As Erica pointed out in her e-mail to me about Danny's piece, what Danny's writing about is the concept of transmedia storytelling that has driven a significant amount of work here in the Consortium, and his piece is a reminder that what we are describing does not have to just be experimental crossovers into mobile and video games but also launching into live concert (similar to my writing about the WWE) or books (such as with Oakdale Confidential and Bad Twin)

Most of our writing about the Disney Channel has been either on Bob Iger (loko here and here) or on gated channels (look here). Danny's piece is a reminder that Disney is also a continuing innovator in developing cross-platform personalities across Disney properties and a master at the marketing of not just character personas but the actors behind these characters as well.

Perhaps we could think about the ways in which the Disney Channel is developing a media literacy for younger viewers to gain a nuanced understanding for how these characters, and those who portray them, cross various media forms, and about both the play and the distinction between characters and the actors who play them.