Monday, April 12, 2010

What's the point of Disney XD, really?

Before you read this, I just wanted to apologize for writing about tween television twice this month. Sorry 'bout that. Don't worry, I swear it won't happen every week! Anyway...

The other day as I was "researching" Disney and Nickelodeon's Magic Tween TV formula, Lil' Lilith and I got into an indepth discussion about some of our her favorite TV shows and channels. We realized that we had no idea what the hell Disney XD was supposed to be about. If you don't have a kid, you probably have never even heard of that channel, but we she watches it all the time. 

The four main channels that Lil' Lilith watches (not including LOGO because we love our gays) are Nickelodeon, TeenNick, Disney and Disney XD. The intended difference between Nick and TeenNick was pretty easy to decipher just by the name, but I couldn't figure out what this whole XD thing was about. Allegedly the "XD" stands for "Xtreme Digital" and is marketed to tween and teen boys. Yep, that's right. Disney XD = Disney-for-boys.

You might be wondering, why is there no Disney-for-girls? Well apparently regular Disney is Disney-for-girls. At least that's what some people think.

According to a recent piece from LA Times, some people think that tween TV is skewed toward girls:
Has there ever been a better moment for tween girls? "Hannah Montana" and "Wizards of Waverly Place" reign on the Disney Channel. Tween idol Taylor Swift rules the radio. There are even tween girls in the White House. Since mega-successes like "High School Musical," Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers showed execs the way, pop culture has been flooded with tween girl entertainment. And yet another promising series about a cool teen girl, "Victorious," debuts on Nickelodeon on Saturday.
But what about the boys? Some parents are asking whether the TV landscape has undergone a tween gender shift that leaves boys in the lurch.
Nick and Disney executives on the other hand claim instead that boys' tastes are changing (including choosing to watch more relationship-based shows rather than just action-based ones) and they just don't have a problem relating to strong female leads.  As much as I hate to defend Nick and Disney execs, I think they have a point on this one.

For a long time there were very few empowering young female role models on TV. According to a 2008 study by the International Central Institute for Youth and Education Television (IZI) only 32% of all main characters in children’s television were female. (The ratio of male to female characters in animated shows - including when the main character was non-human - was 87:13 male-to-female.) For years, children's literature has also had a disproportionate amount of male and female lead protagonists, forcing girls to be able to relate to strong male leads. Now that times have changed (it's definitely not perfect, but it's better) can't we expect boys to be able to watch female characters on TV?

Based on the demographics, it seems that they already are.

Nickelodeon's iCarly is the number one live-action program on TV with all boy demos and brings in almost a fifty-fifty male-female tween viewership. Apparently boys and girls of all ages just love iCarly, including the 6-year-old son of one of our favorite bloggers (Queen of Spain). Miranda Cosgrove's "Carly Shay" may be the main character and namesake of the show, but the primary focus is on her relationship with her two best friends (one male, one female) and older brother.

According to the IZI survey, girls and boys are both looking for "narratives and characters that represent their interests and ideals, and that provide suspense, humour, and involvement." Somehow Nickelodeon has mastered that perfect formula with iCarly.

A lot of the other so-called "girly" shows are also far more gender-neutral than you'd think. Not only do they deal with topics any kid might be intrigued by (such as leading a double life as a popstar, having secret magical powers, or joining the cast of your favorite TV show) but there are also plenty of male characters to back up the strong female leads.

In the supporting cast of Hannah Montana, Emily Osment's "Lily" is outnumbered by guys (Jason Earles, Mitchel Musso, Moises Arias, Cody Linley, and of course Billy Ray Cyrus). Wizards of Waverly Place doesn't just tell the story of teenage wizard "Alex Russo" (Selena Gomez) but also her two brothers "Justin" and "Max" (David Henrie and Jake T. Austin, respectively). Sonny With a Chance, Demi Lovato's star vehicle on Disney, features four male and two female characters in addition to Lovato's "Sonny Munroe".

Similarly, many of the shows that feature male leads instead of female ones still have a lot of unisex appeal... such as The Suite Life on Deck (as well as its predecessor The Suite Life of Zack and Cody), Phineas and Ferb, JONAS, Cory in the House, I'm in the Band and Nickelodeon's new show Big Time Rush, which brings close to a fifty-fifty male-female demo.
And then there's Disney XD's "flagship" show Aaron Stone. It seems no tweens are really watching that show - boys or girls - proving that any tween would rather watch a well-written show that is relationship-based and stars a girl, than a "guy show" that just... isn't very good. (Not to imply that Hannah Montana is necessarily "well-written". But I will go out on a limb and say that Phineas and Ferb has some of the best comedic writing on TV today. Yeah, that's right. I said it! But I digress...)

A similar point can be made about movies as well. There was another story recently about Disney's upcoming movie Tangled. Apparently, The Princess and the Frog did so lousy at the box office, that the studio decided boys just must not want to see a movie with "princess" in the title. So they restyled their upcoming Rapunzel story to be less "girly" (i.e., they changed the name and brought in a male swashbuckling lead). But maybe the reason The Princess and the Frog did so poorly was the fact that it just kind of sucked?

Maybe the execs need to stop worrying about whether something is too girly (or not girly enough) and concentrate on creating good TV shows and films that kids, tweens and teens of either gender can enjoy. If tween boys really are "complex beings who are evolving" as Gary March, chief creative officer of Disney Channels Worldwide, claims, then why is Disney XD even necessary? The Disney channel has an overall sixty-forty female-male viewership, while Disney XD has the reverse... it seems that they would be better off scrapping XD and sticking with a single channel that airs only quality shows, period.

And for the record, I'm not suggesting that any of the shows I mentioned are necessarily "quality shows". There are, of course, flaws in each of these shows but relatively speaking some are less bad than others... for both girls and boys.

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