You might be wondering what could possibly be similar about the stories of a teenager who lives a double life as a popstar, a group of siblings with magic wizard powers, and a 15 year old fashion executive... but trust me, they each follow almost exactly the same basic formula.
Then you need your Wacky Ensemble. A motley crew of supporting characters and side kicks for comic relief and/or conflict. They must include at least two of the follow clichés: The Dummy, The Dork (also known as The Smart Kid), The Rich Kid, The Jerk or Bully; the Troublemaker or Bad Boy, The Bitch, The Dreamy Crush, The Eccentric (sometimes known as The Weirdo), The Pretty Tomboy, The "Ethnic" Character (or sometimes just The Token Black Guy), The "Will-They-Or-Won't-They" Best Friend of the Opposite Sex, The Ineffective Authority Figure. Sometimes a supporting character will have more than one of these traits (this is what the writers think is referred to as "creating complex characters".)
Begin with some Normal Stuff. The "I'm just a regular kid like you" set-up that makes your characters relatable to the audience. Basically, they should be a typical teenager who goes to school with other typical teengers and has typical teenage problems.
Then throw in a Crazy Twist. This is the exciting, fantastical "I wish it would happen to me" dream-come-true gimmick that makes the show watchable. Because really, what kid wants to watch a show that is just about a typical teenager who goes to school with other typical teenagers and has typical teenage problems unless they also have exciting, fantastical, crazy twist problems too?
Now all you need to do is come up with a weekly list of Hilarious Hijinks... plot twists and conflicts ranging from the mundane ("I can't fail that test!") to the interesting ("how can I get Jordin Sparks to listen to my song?") to the exciting ("do I go to prom or to record a duet with David Archuleta?") to the ridiculous ("I accidentally turned my brother invisible"). Giving your star the opportunity to sing is always a bonus.
Throw in the occasional Guest Stars for sweeps week and voila! INSTANT HIT!! It's that simple.
Don't believe me?
Let's look at one of Disney's biggest hits, Hannah Montana (not just in terms of the show itself, but in terms of the whole Hannah/Miley Cyrus cash cow)...
Demi Lovato + one Bitch + one Dummy + one Weirdo + one Token Black Guy + one Dreamy Jerk + one Ineffective boss + Normal Stuff (she's just a regular teenage girl) + Crazy Twist (she won a part on a hit TV show) + a bunch of Hilarious Hijinks (dressing up as her own biggest fan, acting opposite a farting dog, challenging the cast of a rival show to Musical Chairs) + Surprise Guest Stars (like Selena Gomez and Jeff Dunham) = Sonny With a Chance
Miranda Cosgrove + one Pretty Tomboy/Troublemaker best friend + one "Will-They-Or-Won't-They" best friend + one Eccentric brother + a handful of Ineffective principals and teachers + Normal Stuff (she's just a normal teenager with normal friends!) + Crazy Twist (she stars in her own web show!) + a bunch of Hilarious Hijinks (broadcasting webcasts from a haunted apartment, detention, and Japan) + Surprise Guest Stars (like David Archuletta, the Plain White Tees and Victoria Justice) = iCarly
Kyle Massey + one Dummy best friend + one Ethnic "Will-They-Or-Won't-They" best friend + one child Bitch + one Eccentric Jerk + three Ineffective Authority Figures + Normal Stuff (he's just a regular teengaer) + Crazy Twist (he lives in the White House!) + a bunch of Hilarious Hijinks (opening up his own braiding shop, making exploding dessert for a White House dinner and accidentally giving the deed to Alaska back to Russia) + Surprise Guest Stars (like Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, George Takei and Raven-Symoné) = Cory in the House
Keke Palmer + two Dummy best friends + one Dreamy Crush + one Eccentric boss + one Bitch coworker + Normal Stuff (she's just a normal teenager with style) + Crazy Twist (she's VP of a fashion company!) + a bunch of Hilarious Hijinks (disguising herself as a male skateboarder, looking after a famous supermodel, throwing her boss a wedding at a zoo) + Surprise Guest Stars (like Andy Richter, Dave Foley, and Justin Bieber) = True Jackson, VP
Disney managed to make this this formula work twice for the Sprouse Twins although they did make some minor adjustments... For instance, the "marketable leads" are also the Troublemaker and the Dork.
Dylan and Cole Sprouse + one Rich Bitch Dummy + one Ethnic stereotype + one Eccentric + one Dorky Crush/Pretty Tomboy + two Ineffective Authority Figures + Normal Stuff (they're just two regular twin boys) + Crazy Twist (they live in a fancy hotel!) + a bunch of Hilarious Hijinks (hanging out with a prince, entering a ballroom dance competition, sneaking a horse into the hotel) + Surprise Guest Stars (like Zac Efron, Jesse McCartney, and the Cheetah Girls) = The Suite Life of Zack and Cody
For the spin-off of the show, just replace one Dorky Crush with another, substitute a Token Black Guy for the Ethnic Stereotype, trade the Eccentric for a full-on Weirdo, and change the Crazy Twist from a fancy hotel to a fancy cruise ship... similar Hilarious Hijinks (visiting a guru in India, helping a spy recover a stolen microchip, escaping prison on a tropical island), throw in some more Surprise Guest Stars (like Jordin Sparks, Ed Beagley Jr., and Charo) = The Suite Life on Deck
Now, this isn't to say that all of Nickelodeon's and Disney's are the same. Some follow this formula to a tee, some tweak it a bit (not every marketable lead can sing for instance), and yes, some of them actually veer away from it altogether... but it is clear that they figured out what works and they are going to keep doing it until it stops working.
Some of the newest attempts at this formula include Disney's I'm in the Band (relatively unknown but amiable Logan Miller is just a regular teenager who joins his favorite rock band, which includes one Dummy, one Jerk and one Weirdo) and Nickelodeon'sVictorious (familiar face Victoria Justice is a teen who unexpectedly finds herself navigating life at an elite performing arts high school with one Bitch, one Eccentric, one Weirdo,one Dreamy Crush/Bad Boy and one "Will-They-or-Won't-They" best friend).
Now that we've figured out this secret formula, we were thinking of how we can capitalize off of this knowledge... We should totally pitch the networks our ideas for a brand new show! (Do you think anyone would actually let their kids watch a show produced by the ESC?) We figure all we need to do is put a bunch of random situations and clichés on a bulletin board and throw darts at it.
We're torn between teen astronauts spending a year on a space station, siblings who live on an wild animal refuge with their animal-trainer parents, and two kids who inherit a popular nightclub (because there would be endless marketing opportunities and guest star potential). With a mix of hot young stars, some lesser known new faces, and an a few older actors in need of a comeback, we're talking about instant success.