the pulse

Eek! A mouse traps family comedy crowd

It happened, appropriately enough, on Friday the 13th — the one that came some 31/2 weeks ago in July. From 8-9:30 p.m., the Disney Channel, the very one that once was little more than a repository for old Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy cartoons, beat everything in sight in the Nielsen Media Research ranking to emerge No. 1 for that 90-minute programming block.

I'm not talking about No. 1 among all cable channels but No. 1, period. It beat all of the broadcast boys, too, snaring 5.1 million total viewers. Its closest pursuer was NBC with 4.6 million total bodies.

Perhaps equally eye-popping was the kind of programs utilized by the ascendant Disney to accomplish this coup. It was a three-pronged programming blitz titled "Wish Gone Amiss," consisting of original episodes of the so-called 'tween comedies "Hannah Montana," "The Suite Life of Zack & Cody" and "Cory in the House."

Yes, comedy — that crazy genre whose impending death has been widely reported and speculated upon — beat the broadcast networks on a summertime Friday night. And perhaps even more jarring, the Disney comedies accomplished this little feat with shows that are designed to appeal solely to a minuscule slice of the demographic pie: those young people who are said to be in between kiddiehood and adolescence, in the region of ages 9-14.

If the broadcasters aren't at least a little bit embarrassed by this, well, maybe they ought to be.

Not that Gary Marsh, the Disney Channel's entertainment president, is much interested in awakening this collective sleeping giant. He's enjoying far too much success as the only family comedy game in town.

"The broadcast networks have created this crater-sized vacuum that we're only too happy to fill," Marsh says. "The classic sitcom has outlived all other forms of TV entertainment for a reason. Laughter is a great catharsis and never goes out of style."

The series that Disney used to knock off the networks on July 13 have helped catapult the channel to its highest ratings figures ever and made it the first choice of a new generation of maturing kids, with "Hannah Montana" and "Suite Life" in particular growing into phenomenons. And as the Disney programming chief notes, "The networks' abandonment of the sitcom has supplied us with a huge surplus of world-class writers and producers to bring to our network. It's made our shows that much better."

That perhaps helps explain why, for the first time, three Disney Channel series cracked the list of nominees in the children's program category for the forthcoming Primetime Emmy Awards: "Hannah Montana," "Suite Life" and "That's So Raven."

Yes, even the grownups in the TV academy seem to be paying attention to what's going on over there in Burbank. As Marsh observes, you don't zoom to the top of the total viewer ratings in primetime if you're solely attracting the target audience, no matter how massive your percentage.

"We've been able to bring families together and bring back the whole notion of family viewing," Marsh points out. "We make sure with all of our shows that the programming entry point is the parents in the room." Or, as "Hannah Montana" executive producer Steven Peterman puts it, "We've set out to make a show that all kinds of kids could laugh at and parents could view without wanting to kill themselves."

If the numbers are an accurate gauge, mom and dad can be taken off suicide watch — and the family comedy removed from the obituaries.
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