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On Feb. 13, Toon Disney becomes Disney XD, a cable channel targeting boys ages 6-14. As president of entertainment for Disney Channels Worldwide, Gary Marsh is betting big that the company has found the right way to reach this notoriously difficult demographic.
The Hollywood Reporter: What’s the inspiration for creating a channel appealing to boys?
Gary Marsh: We believe there was a programming void for a network that looked at boys more holistically and that didn’t assume all boys were just goofy, cartoon-loving, video-game-playing automotons. Based on our research, boys are complex, complicated beings who are looking for acknowledgment from their friends and their families. And they’re consistently trying out new skills, sometimes succeeding and sometimes failing.
THR: You had assumed that girls are complex but that boys are not?
Marsh: With all due respect to our competitors, television for boys tends to rely largely on animation and broad, silly, gross-out humor. We felt that that sold boys short.
THR: What’s the percentage of girls/boys who watch the Disney Channel?
Marsh: About 60/40. Look, there’s no doubt that Disney Channel attracts more girls than boys and Toon Disney was not a first choice. But we know that when we deliver the right program, boys will come in droves.
THR: What are the best new shows on Disney XD?
Marsh: We’re trying to do things other networks are not doing — create original live-action movies and series. I’m especially proud of “Aaron Stone” and “Zeke & Luther.” Aaron Stone is the avatar for a very popular online video game called “Hero Rising.” Sixteen-year-old Charlie Landers is the kid who created that avatar. It turns out that “Hero Rising” is not just an online game, it is a re-creation of events in the real world and is being used to recruit agents to help combat the real criminal elements who are portrayed in “Hero Rising.”
THR: Is “Zeke & Luther” that complicated?
Marsh: “Zeke & Luther” is a great buddy comedy about two 15-year-old boys who are dead set on becoming world-famous skateboarders, come hell or high water.
THR: What happened to simple shows for kids, like “The Brady Bunch” or “Leave It to Beaver”?
Marsh: The essence of what works for kids is storytelling that speaks to their world, their reality. “Leave It to Beaver” worked perfectly in its time because it spoke to a slightly fantasized reality of that time period.
THR: What did you watch as a kid?
Marsh: At the risk of dating myself, I really liked “Dennis the Menace” and “The Rifleman.” What’s frightening is “The Rifleman” passed for appropriate television for kids.
THR: You’re worried about guns? I saw “Aaron Stone” and that was much more violent than anything on “The Rifleman.”
Marsh: I don’t think that’s true. There’s a pretty big difference between fantasy adventure and gun violence.
THR: Why Disney XD?
Marsh: It doesn’t stand for anything. The letter X has many cool associations. Kids say “X marks the spot” on a treasure map, we talk about the “X factor” representing the great unknown. The beauty of it is the audience can imbue it with all sorts of positive attributes.
THR: Will there be cross-referencing between the Disney Channel and Disney XD? Will “Hannah Montana” and “Zack & Cody” characters show up on “Zeke & Luther,” for example?
Marsh: I love that idea. The wonderful part of XD is that it fits under the larger Disney uber-umbrella. Since it does share some of those brand attributes, there’s no reason we can’t cross-pollinate some of the actors.
THR: You mentioned your competitors earlier. Which of them do you like?
Marsh: I don’t want to give them the credit that they deserve.
THR: What do you think of “iCarly” on Nickelodeon?
Marsh: “ICarly” is a very successful show.
THR: So you can’t even give props to your competitors?
Marsh: I did give props, Paul. I did.
THR: Is launching a channel in the midst of a recession a good idea?
Marsh: Certainly there’s a financial crunch and advertisers are feeling it, but at the end of the day this is a long-term project. It’s about building a new brand identity targeted to boys as part of the Walt Disney Co. If we do our job right, whatever troubles we have at launch will be a short-term blip in a long pattern of success.
THR: The last three Disney shows I watched were “Hannah Montana,” “Zack & Cody” and “Aaron Stone.” In all three of them, the kids had only one parent. Does Disney have something against the two-parent household?
Marsh: We love two-parent households. They’re just not always available in our prgramming.
THR: How about “Zeke & Luther”? Either of them have two parents?
Marsh: “Zeke & Luther” tends to focus almost exclusively on the kids. We don’t deal much with the parents. We do have two parents in “Phineas & Ferb” and the Jonas Brothers series coming to the Disney Channel in May.
THR: Will the Jonas Brothers be on Disney XD at all?
Marsh: I don’t have plans for that now. But who knows where the Jonas Brothers will be seen next.
THR: Are your shows TiVo-proof?
Marsh: It’s a different model for kids and adults. One of the things that has worked well for us is the repeat factor. Kids actually like to watch the episodes over and over again.
THR: You’re absolutely right. My two boys will watch the same episode 12 times rather than watch new episodes I’ve TiVo-ed for them. So, you’re sure I can’t get you to comment on “iCarly”?
Marsh: It’s a very successful show.
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