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Marvel purchase shows Disney’s boy troubles

A funny thing happened on the way to remaking the Toon Disney channel into one that catered to "tween" boys: It got a lot more popular with girls.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A funny thing happened on the way to remaking the Toon Disney channel into one that catered to "tween" boys: It got a lot more popular with girls.

Perhaps it's because teenagers Hutch Dano and Adam Hicks, the stars of the channel's most popular new show, "Zeke and Luther," exude a goofy innocence in a scrubbed-clean environment.

Whatever the reason, the slightly off-kilter rebranding effort at the channel now called Disney XD highlights a larger problem at The Walt Disney Co.: It has had difficulty winning over young male audiences.

Disney announced part of the solution this week, agreeing to buy comic book giant Marvel Entertainment Inc. for $4 billion, bringing characters like Iron Man and Spider-Man into the house of Hannah Montana, Cinderella and Pocahontas.

A closer look at Disney's ongoing efforts with the XD channel — where prime-time ratings this summer nearly doubled among boys aged 9 to 14 but tripled among girls the same age — helps explain why the company wanted Marvel's outside firepower in its quest for boy-focused content.

While there's no harm in attracting more girls to the channel, Disney also wants to draw more advertising for boy-focused products like video games and action figure toys.

That might have taken years on its own. Now Marvel is expected to bring more superhero power to Disney XD, adding to the 20 hours per week that Marvel content already runs on the network.

That could be a big boost at Disney's cable division, which includes ESPN, the Disney Channel and ABC Family, and is increasingly important for the company, especially as DVD sales sag. The cable networks account for more than a quarter of Disney's revenue and more than half of its profit, and have launched some of Disney's biggest stars.

But going after a more male audience is a tough slog. Boys are fickle. They demand authenticity and appreciate a snarky sense of humor, while at other times, they just want to immerse themselves in fantasy worlds and animation.

Rich Ross, president of Disney Channels Worldwide, said the goal of rebranding Toon Disney as Disney XD was always "to create this destination for boys that is still inclusive of girls."

And the shift has already helped bring in some new ads.

Electronic Arts Inc. boosted its advertising spending about 30 percent this year on Disney XD after its switch, mainly to advertise kid-friendly video games such as "MySims Racing" and "Madden NFL 10."

Higher ratings and more girl viewers should help sell more games, said Amber Mayo, EA's director of media strategy.

"It's not unexpected that we're seeing XD pop up with more girl numbers. That's great for us. That's a bonus to me," she said.

The openness to girls was part of the design of "Zeke and Luther," according to executive producer Matt Dearborn. Amid their tomfoolery, the lead characters sometimes turn to the camera to agonize over decisions, expressing self-doubt in a way that is reassuring to girl audiences, he said.

"There's a vulnerability behind their bravado and swagger," Dearborn said after a recent writers' session. "For a girl viewer, I think they feel like they're getting a peek into `the secret world of boys.'"

Disney XD also is rounding out its schedule with "I'm in the Band," a sitcom, set to air in October, about a teenager who joins a washed-up '80s rock band that moves in with him and his single mother.

When a reporter visited the set recently, crews were shooting a flashback scene that explored an event from the rockers' irresponsible past — when they swung at a pinata in their van.

"It's doing a show about rock 'n' roll without the sex and drugs," said executive producer Michael Kaplan. "There's the whole fantasy of being in a rock band, but there's also just the fun of being a kid with these three crazy idiots who are just making his life chaos, which is just a very boy-friendly thing."

One big challenge for Disney is that the boys market is well served.

Time Warner Inc.'s Cartoon Network, whose audience is more than 70 percent boys, plans to roll out the second season of George Lucas' popular "Star Wars: The Clone Wars" series this fall.

Cartoon Network is also branching into live-action and reality TV shows that leave little doubt about their target audience. "Dude, What Would Happen" features a group of teenage boys who try stunts like installing a lemonade tank into the hood of a car. "My Dad's a Pro" follows the Boston Celtics' Eddie House through the eyes of his 8-year-old son, Jaelen.

"We think we have a finger on the pulse of boys," said Stuart Snyder, president of Turner Broadcasting Inc.'s animation, young adults and kids media group, which houses Cartoon Network.

Ron Geraci, a senior vice president of research for the Nickelodeon kids and family group, questioned Disney's focus on boys.

Nickelodeon's tween audience draws almost equally between boys and girls on such shows as "SpongeBob Squarepants," "iCarly," and "Penguins of Madagascar."

"One of the fallacies in the kids marketplace has been that you can't program to both boys and girls," Geraci said. "We think the commonality among boys and girls is comedy and we've proved it time and again."

Indeed, Nickelodeon's average audience is 2.2 million, while Disney XD gets close to 300,000. Disney XD is expected to bring in $220 million in revenue this year — peanuts compared with $1.9 billion at Viacom Inc.-owned Nickelodeon and $573 million at Cartoon Network, according to estimates by research firm SNL Kagan.

Ross, the head of Disney Channels, says skeptics shouldn't bet against a company that has turned out such unexpected franchises as "High School Musical," "Hannah Montana" and "The Jonas Brothers."

"We keep on believing in the property and the world returns our favor," Ross said. "My expectations are high but I'm a patient man."