Cable’s Next 'Musical’ Is Anyone’s Guess

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I can’t put my finger on it. How could such an addictive force take hold of my two young daughters right under my own nose? Why can’t they get enough of Disney Channel’s High School Musical?

Nearly six months after first being exposed to the film — a tween-charged West Side Story meets Grease meets Rebound — both my girls are still enthralled with it.

Normally healthy, strong-minded adolescents, they’re suddenly transfixed into a surreal trance every time one of the movie’s many annoyingly hummable songs comes on the air (which is every five minutes, it seems). They know all the words … they can emulate every choreographed dance move … it’s truly scary!

I’m still perplexed by how this relatively unsung movie was able to resonate for so long with much of the U.S. tween populace. I mean, after 36.5 million unique viewers, 1.7 million DVD and 2.4 million CD sales, the movie is still as popular as ever.

I asked many of my television-critic friends whether I was the only one to miss the boat on the phenomenon. It turns out they were as clueless as I was to the movie’s surreal popularity.

So I asked Disney Channel executives whether they knew in advance what kind of hit they had on their hands. While Disney waxed poetically about the movie’s quality, its compelling story line and great soundtrack, the bottom line was nobody there had a clue the movie would be such a resounding success.

Still not satisfied, I finally asked my daughters why out of the hundreds of movies that they’ve seen and quickly forgotten about in their relatively short lives, this one has continued to tap dance in their hearts (and on my nerves) for so long? They just looked at me inquisitively and quipped, “I don’t know dad, I just really like it.”

And therein lies the rub. Programming executives get paid millions of dollars to basically guess what the next big cable hit will be, and television critics get paid a lot less to give opinions as to whether a show is worthy of your time and attention.

But no matter how great we television “experts” think we are at prognosticating hit shows, it ultimately comes down to whether a particular show connects with the viewer. In essence, nothing is a hit until the viewers say it is.

Turner Network Television programming chief Steve Koonin knows a thing or two about television hits — his network finished 2005 as the primetime ratings champion of ad-supported basic cable networks.

But even in his wildest dreams Koonin said he couldn’t have predicted the incredible success of TNT’s detective drama The Closer. A whopping 8.3 million viewers tuned in last week to the show’s second season premiere to once again bond with Kyra Sedgwick and her southern accent.

But a network hit isn’t always based on mass viewership. Fuse’s obscure Pants Off Dance Off, in which people literally disrobe on camera while dancing to the beat of the latest Beyoncé hit, was recently dubbed by TV Guide as the dumbest show on TV. But evidently Fuse is having the last laugh.

The series is generating relatively decent ratings for the network. More importantly for an upstart service like Fuse, the show is generating a great deal of buzz and street cred with its core young adult audience.

Cable programmers have placed their bets as to which shows they believe will sizzle this summer. Now we as viewers get to sit back and choose which ones will deliver the biggest payoff to us as well as to the network.

As for my daughters, I suspect that their fervor for High School Musical will finally begin to wane sometime in August. That’s about the time Disney will premiere the sequel to its last big hit musical, The Cheetah Girls.

Since my kids were huge fans of the 2004 version, I expect the movie’s R&B sounds and tween-drivel dialog delivered by Disney star Raven and her “cheetah-licious” co-stars will infect my daughters’ minds in much the same way as High School Musical did. But then again, what do I know? My guess is as good as Disney’s.

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