For years, The Walt Disney Co. doled out fantasy with an even hand. They had Cinderella's Castle, but they also had Tom Sawyer's Island and coonskin caps.
But lately, Disney's corporate icons have gone all girly — a fact that troubled Disney Channel President Rich Ross.
"We were hearing that boys loved the programming on the Disney Channel, but it wasn't their favorite channel," Ross says.
Over the past several years, Ross helped the company develop a staggeringly successful business model — one that could usher a girl from her princess phase to her High School Musical phase to her Jonas Brothers phase. But, he says, the company never paused to figure out how to do the same with boys.
"There were 18 million boys [aged] 6 to 14 out there, and it seemed like we had an opportunity to use all the knowledge we'd learned in creating the Disney Channel to create a great offering for boys specifically," he says.
That offering is Disney XD, a new cable channel aimed at boys — and their allowances. Ross says that after a couple of years of exhaustive market research, the company determined that today's boy is much more emotionally sophisticated than he gets credit for: He's interested in sharing experiences and striving toward personal goals, and finding expression for his complicated inner life. Oh, and he apparently likes sports and video games.
Enter Aaron Stone, a live-action series with a premise that seems to have been spit out of a computer straight at a fifth-grade boy. It's about a basketball-playing, video-game-loving high-school nobody whose favorite video game just happens to be a recruiting tool for a secret spy organization. Soon, our unlikely hero is saving the world between classes.
Aaron Stone will be joined by new cartoons, live-action comedy, reality shows and lots of music geared toward the coonskin-cap set. And then there are sports ...
"On the sports side, we are very lucky that a brother brand of ours is ESPN, the leader in sports programming globally," Ross says.
Between ESPN and their record labels and radio stations, it seems that Disney should be able to roll up America's boys the same way it has America's girls.
But it might not be so easy; tween boys are notoriously hard to reach, says Jane Buckingham, who studies young consumers for the market research firm The Intelligence Group.
According to Buckingham, programmers are having trouble drawing in male consumers of all ages, particularly the younger set, who are often out playing sports or upstairs playing video games. To drag them back to the TV, says Buckingham, Disney will have to be less frilly and more edgy.
"They're going to have to be careful," says Buckingham. "As the boys get older, they are very sensitive to not wanting it to be too young or too girly."
Richard Loomis, who heads up Disney XD's branding and marketing, says appearing authentic will be the key to appealing to boys.
"We wanted to very much keep it real," he says. "There is an aggressive point of view in a very positive way that I think will be very signature to Disney XD."
But Buckingham warns that authenticity can be complicated: "A mistake would be for Disney to try and suddenly say, 'Hey! We're the hippest, coolest, raciest site out there!' The kids would say 'No. Don't do that. You're Disney.' "
But Ross says there's no danger of that. Disney XD will be decidedly Disney — same storytelling, same family-friendly values — but with a different look designed for an audience who, he says, deserves better programming. And who can buy lots and lots of Disney stuff.