Commentary: YouTube tail wagging the Mouse

Miley Cyrus online antics destroying Kewpie doll image

Teenagers can be so cruel. Why just the other day Miley was overheard mocking Selena for wearing an uncool T-shirt and Demi for that gap she used to have in her teeth.

Were these just average girls getting catty at the local mall, no one would care. But Disney likely is concerned considering that the females in question are some of its Disney Channel's biggest stars. And there they were on YouTube, ridiculing each other for the world to see.

Yes, that's Miley as in Miley Cyrus. When she's not dominating the pop charts or TV ratings, the multimillionaire 15-year-old has her own self-programmed channel on YouTube with unfiltered footage of herself and her friend Mandy Jiroux cracking themselves up in ways only 13-year-old girls might find funny. While mostly harmless high jinks, MileyMandy's Channel recently became gossip fodder after she posted a video in which the duo mimicked two rival Disney stars, Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato, in less than flattering fashion.

True, teasing a girl for using too much eye shadow is not exactly a public-relations crisis. Disney has experienced worse with Cyrus, from her infamous Vanity Fair photo spread in April to yet another leak this past weekend of risque snapshots allegedly depicting her in skimpy outfits.

But while Disney can't be expected to control every photograph either snapped by the press or hacked from Cyrus' personal e-mail account, how is it that the actress is allowed to broadcast herself on the Internet free of Disney's interference, even to bash her fellow modern-day Mouseketeers?

From Vanity Fair to YouTube, it's abundantly apparent that the actress is intent on destroying the Kewpie doll image Disney has spent millions cultivating, perhaps in fear that her childhood success will hamper her transition to more adult roles. She wants to upgrade from a training bra to a bustier ASAP, and she's not about to leave the fitting to Disney.

A Disney spokeswoman confirmed that the company has no involvement in Cyrus' presence on YouTube, where her videos routinely rack up millions of streams. Which means Disney can neither control the message nor participate in any revenue.

Cyrus' carte blanche online doesn't square with what you'd expect from Disney, a master of multimedia brand management. Its corps of young talent has the opportunity to capitalize on TV, film, radio and concerts. Plus, Disney presumably retains some approval rights over Cyrus' extracurricular activities like her hosting duties Sunday on Fox's "Teen Choice Awards."

But YouTube has just as much reach and impact, thus two different Mileys are emerging in the public sphere. On air, the officially sanctioned Hannah Montana is equal parts sugar and spice. Online, the real-life Cyrus overdoses on the latter ingredient, and her shrill personality likely will alter perceptions of her fictional one.

Maybe it's as simple as that old joke about where a 2,000-pound elephant sits: anywhere it wants to. Cyrus is simply so valuable to Disney that they'll stomach her online antics lest they slay a golden goose.

Any revenue Disney would collect online from participating in Cyrus' YouTube ad revenue is peanuts compared with the estimated $1 billion her brand is worth in established channels, but the issue here isn't money. It's only a matter of time before Cyrus does something online that derails this gravy train.

Still, it just doesn't seem possible that a shrewd company like Disney would take a laissez faire approach beyond on the Internet. Perhaps that is what Disney would like consumers to think on YouTube, where the faintest whiff of corporate calculation is a turnoff. As renegade a presence as Cyrus maintains on the site, perhaps Disney has some kind of understanding with the actress' camp that she can indulge herself online as long as she does nothing that triggers the morals clause in her contract.

But rest assured that if studios can't control their talent's online activities, it's the talent who ultimately controls their valuable brands.