The 24-year Disney vet on why they're beating Nickelodeon, junk food, Marvel integration and who's to blame when child stars go bad.
As president of Disney Channels Worldwide, Gary Marsh has every reason to gloat. His Disney Channel rounded out 2011 as the No. 1 kids network for the first time, unseating Nickelodeon's remarkable 16-year run. Thus far this year, Disney is outperforming its longtime rival by 23 percent, with such series as Jessie, Austin & Ally and A.N.T. Farm hitting big. Marsh, 57, a married Los Angeles native whose 6-year-old daughter falls squarely in his demographic, has financial and creative oversight of the company's global kids TV business, which includes more than 100 channels in 169 countries. The Disney veteran, who got his start as renowned director John Rich's assistant before moving to Manhattan briefly to work on political campaigns, sat down in early June to discuss the ratings milestone, new Marvel series and potential headaches that often accompany young stardom.
THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER: How do you get into the kid mind-set?
Gary Marsh: We spend a lot of time talking to, listening to and watching our demo in focus groups. Sometimes it will be eight to 10 kids in a room, and we'll show them an episode and then sit with them for an hour and a half asking what worked and what didn't. There's also a huge quantitative research effort, which is going out online to 300 to 500 kids at a time with a show and then doing a vote of was this funny or not funny or who is their favorite character.
THR: Tell me something surprising you've learned in one of those focus groups.
Marsh: Back when Gerry Laybourne first joined the company in 1996 [as president of Disney-ABC Cable Networks], we went to a focus group in Chicago and talked to a bunch of kids about the difference between Disney Channel and Nickelodeon. Gerry said to us, "We're going to ask them to compare both of the networks to a food, and they're going to say Nickelodeon is like pizza and Disney Channel is like broccoli." Sure enough, that's exactly what they said. It was very eye-opening.
THR: What food is Disney Channel today?
Marsh: I think I can safely say pizza. And I'm excited that we've now taken the pizza role. (Laughs.)
THR: To what do you attribute the steep ratings decline at Nickelodeon?
Marsh: Look, people thought Disney Channel was going to fall off the cliff when Hannah Montana went away because it was such a defining show. There was concern in external corridors and even a whisper campaign internally, and we were so aware of that that we made sure we stacked the deck. We built not one or two but four series that we all thought would take over the lifting, and they have. If you know there's a fall coming, prop yourself up, create a cushion.
THR: Because Marvel is now part of Disney, are you looking into more Avengers series?
Marsh: Two months ago, we launched Marvel Universe on Disney XD, which became the exclusive home for new Marvel television content. We've developed Ultimate Spider-Man. Subsequent to the success of the Avengers movie, we've been developing a new Avengers Assemble. We're talking about a Hulk series and an Iron Man series, too. They're going to spend $150 million to $200 million to make these [movie] properties and then half of that to market them; I'm sitting here thinking, "Thank you, Lord, you've made me look good."
THR: What qualities do you look for in kids to ensure they are fit for Disney Channel stardom?
Marsh: When you look at a Shia LaBeouf, Selena Gomez or Demi Lovato, there's a quality of transparency, and you can connect with them across the room. It comes from a confidence and a certain kind of charisma. When Miley Cyrus came in the room at 12½, she was as green as the grass, but something was beaming through her eyes that made us feel like we have to take a shot. For Hannah Montana, it had come down to her and another girl, who was a skilled sitcom actress, and there was an absolute split vote. Many of the people who had to make the show wanted the sure thing -- the girl who could hit the jokes, land the laugh. But I wrote an e-mail to everybody that said: "Our job is not to make shows, it's to build franchises and stars. We may have a drink a few years from now and talk about whether we made the right choice, but I'm saying to you that we're going to hire Miley."
THR: How involved do you get in their personal lives?
Marsh: We're one leg of a four-legged stool. It's the network, the production company, the reps and the parents. We're really clear on where our role begins and ends. We have things like a one-day seminar called Talent 101, where we bring in security experts, psychologists, showrunners and life coaches. It's usually after the pilot but before the series launches. But at the end of the day, it's the parents who really have to be parents. We give them all of the tools they might need, but the network is not responsible for raising their children.
THR: What effect do the tabloid exploits of many former stars have on this family-friendly brand?
Marsh: People know that we don't control who these individuals are, and we don't try to. It's the parents' job to do that. Would our lives be easier if everyone was the perfect poster child? Of course. Do I know that's not a reality? I do. Someone like Demi is an unbelievably talented young woman who had some challenges in her life from before we met her and will probably have those challenges far into the future. It's not fair, if that's the right way to express it, to lay that at the feet of the network that discovered her.
THR: Do you stay in touch with these kids after they graduate from Disney Channel?
Marsh: I do. One of my favorite stories was with Shia, who was an insane, crazy, wonderful persona. After Even Stevens, I wanted him to go to college because I thought, "You're so smart, and this would be a great education for you socially and academically." Initially, he told me he didn't want to, that he had lots of opportunities. Then a few years later, he came to me and said: "Gary, I'm going to go to college. Would you write me a letter of recommendation?" I wrote him a letter of recommendation, and he got into Yale and CalArts. He called me with the great news and said he thought he was going to go to CalArts so that he could continue to work in L.A. About three months later, I get another call: "Gary, I've got to tell you, I'm not going to college. I got an offer for this Transformers thing. It's Michael Bay, and if it works, I could get set for life." How do you tell an 18-year-old kid not to do that? Turns out, it was an OK choice for him. (Laughs.)
THR: Disney has announced a ban on junk-food ads during kid programs. What were the conversations like with the Frito-Lays of the world?
Marsh: What I find interesting is that there's a line in the press that Disney is only giving up $7.2 million. What's laughable about that is that we don't expect to be giving up anything. We expect to be setting a standard so that the community of manufacturers changes how they approach the audience. This isn't an altruistic move on our part.
THR: Where's the biggest region of opportunity globally?
Marsh: Disney Channel is in about 415 million homes. One of the focuses going forward is China. We have branded blocks there already, but the company is building a theme park in Shanghai, and there's a concerted effort to expand our programming there.
THR: Do you have a sense of what will translate?
Marsh: We've built a global development system so that when we write a pilot here, we send it to at least 20 different programmers around the world to get feedback. By incorporating their thoughts about things that might be cultural obstacles or characters who might not resonate, we're able to build stories that will work on a global basis. Phineas and Ferb, for instance, works in almost every territory around the world, and part of the reason for that is because those territories weighed in during its development.
THR: Rich Ross left Disney Channel to run the film studio, but that didn't work. Do non-TV gigs hold appeal?
Marsh: No. I love the fluidity and pace of television and the opportunity if it connects to build on it. As executives in TV, we get to get our hands much dirtier in the creative process. The executives in the feature world hand the property off to the director, producer and writer and, I think, have a little less control in general. I like having that control.
DISNEY CHANNEL'S TOP F5 SERIES: A look at the kids network among the vital 6-to-14 demo in the post-Hannah Montana era
- Jessie: 2.6 mil viewers
- Shake it Up: 2.1 million viewers
- A.N.T. Farm: 2 million viewers
Austin & Ally: 1.9 million viewers
Phineas and Ferb: $1.9 million