Very few networks provide a more diverse on-air lineup of characters and shows than The Disney Channel. Through such groundbreaking series and movies as The Proud Family, The Cheetah Girls and Going to the Mat, the network has offered a broad representation of cultures, religions and physical and mental capabilities.
As a result of its efforts, the network has earned this year’s NAMIC Vision Awards’ NorthStar Award for its a long-term commitment to develop programming that reflects ethnic and cultural diversity.
Disney Channel president of entertainment Rich Ross says diversity was on the front burner when he joined the network eight years ago.
“We felt [diversity] was missing from the channel at that point, so it became mandatory to be inclusive if we were to march forward as a kid-driven brand,” says Ross. “We also knew that if you wanted to send a clear message about diversity [it should include] different ethnic and religious diversities [as well as subjects like] kids with disabilities.”
Right out of the box, the network’s first original live-action series was The Famous Jett Jackson, one of the first kids-targeted series starring an African-American.
“That represented not only ethnic diversity with an African-American family, but family diversity, being that it was a kid with a father who was divorced and living with a grandmother,” says Ross. “We wanted to maintain the relationships and image that Disney stands for while creating a color-blind world on screen.”
To illustrate the point, Ross points to African-American child prodigy Raven Symone, who stars in one of Disney’s top-rated shows, That’s So Raven. Symone starred in the 1980s in The Cosby Show and is one of the most popular actresses among kids today witness her best actress win at Disney Channel competitor Nickelodeon’s recent Kids’ Choice Awards.
“Most of the comedians that have come before Raven have been mostly white,” he says. “But kids look at her as just Raven. At the same time, I understand that African-American girls can look at Raven and see the mirror of themselves on television.”
Ross said diversity is a mandatory and consistent part of what the network does. That work includes some 50 movies and 20 series across all dayparts, from the Playhouse Disney pre-school morning block to its highly-rated primetime lineup for pre-teens.
The network’s emphasis on diversity has paid dividends on the ratings front, particularly within the past year. Disney finished 2003 tied with Nickelodeon and Lifetime Television as the second highest-rated network in prime time with a 1.7 rating — up 21% from last year. Driving Disney’s rating surge were such series with multi-ethnic casts as That’s So Raven, The Proud Family, Lizzie McGuire and off-network acquired series Sister, Sister, as well as movies such as The Cheetah Girls and Gotta Kick It Up, which featured an all-Latino cast.
Further, 23% of households that viewed Disney Channel in January 2004 were African American-led homes, while 25% of kids 6-11 and 23% of kids 12-17 watching Disney Channel have an African-American head of household.
“I think the more people you reach out to the more people want to watch you,” Ross says.
But Disney’s devotion to diversity isn’t only ethnicity-based. Ross pointed to the network’s February film Going to the Mat, which chronicled the life of a blind high school teen and his successful endeavor to make his school’s wrestling squad. While the movie generated decent ratings, Ross says the positive message of perseverance despite physical or mental disabilities was important to him and the network.
“What mattered to me is [because of the movie] kids and families across America would never look at a blind kid again the same way,” says Ross. “The movie will air over and over on the network and will change how kids look at other kids who face this issue.”
Disney’s on-air philosophy towards diversity has not been lost on the creative community. The Proud Family producer Bruce Smith says the network is one of the few in television today that will offer a platform for kids-targeted, multi-cultural programming.
“You have to understand that even though the show is safe and speaks to the multitudes, African-American animated characters are still taboo. The last time we had a show like that was Fat Albert,” says Smith.
But it’s not only African-Americans that Disney is showcasing: later this year, the network will launch Disney’s American Dragon: Jake Long, an animated comedy about an Asian-American boy possessing mystical powers.
Ross said the network remains committed to remaining a leader in providing diverse characters and storylines in its original programming. “The challenge for us is to make sure every kid finds something on the channel that makes them feel that they’re looking at themselves,” says Ross.