Disney Channel explores new direction

The cast of Andi Mack, a comedic drama aimed at children aged six to 14 and their parents.
The cast of Andi Mack, a comedic drama aimed at children aged six to 14 and their parents.PHOTO: NYTIMES

The television channel is hoping that its new show dealing with more complex issues will be a hit with children who are getting older quicker

BURBANK (California) • Grandma is mad. Her grown daughter, Bex, who got pregnant as a teenager, just blazed back into town and let a big secret slip.

Grandma had raised 13-year-old Andi to believe that Bex was her older sister. Well, the truth is a tad more complicated.

Meanwhile, Andi's school life is only a little less fraught. A boy is coming to terms with his sexuality. And Andi has her own budding love life to consider.

The latest from MTV?

Hang on to your mouse ears: Disney Channel - land of safe, sweet sitcoms - is exploring this charged terrain with Andi Mack, a comedic drama aimed at children aged six to 14 and their parents.

While it is just one show, it represents a startling new direction for the squeaky-clean network, whose ratings are decaying as children, reaching puberty earlier and raised on the oh-so-cool Netflix, gravitate towards live-action programming with more edge and authenticity.

I know I can't go to the hugely dramatic space. I can't go to the sexual space. I can't go horror. Where can I go that would elevate the content and get people talking about us in a way that is different from the way they talk about us usually?

MR GARY MARSH, president of Disney Channels Worldwide, on setting a new direction for the network

"I know I can't go to the hugely dramatic space," said Mr Gary Marsh, president of Disney Channels Worldwide. "I can't go to the sexual space. I can't go horror. Where can I go that would elevate the content and get people talking about us in a way that is different from the way they talk about us usually?"

Sitting in his office, amid mementos from glory-days hits such as High School Musical, Mr Marsh mused about breakthrough shows for adults such as Orange Is The New Black on Netflix and The Walking Dead on AMC.

"There has to be an equivalent in our space," he said. "Stories that matter, that deal with more complex issues, that are emotional, resonate longer. They stick to your guts."

Whether Andi Mack connects with viewers when it makes its premiere on April 7 is anyone's guess. (Disney Channel released the first two episodes on its digital platforms last Friday.)

But Mr Marsh's willingness to even take the risk is revealing: As storytelling tastes change and viewing habits shift, the predictable formulas are no longer enough.

The Internet has created more curious and progressive kids. That has led to what the industry calls "age compression" - getting older quicker.

At the same time, Netflix, in many ways, has become the go-to outlet for families. YouTube has also had an enormous impact.

If you are a 12-year-old girl, why watch Liv And Maddie, a Disney Channel sitcom, when you can go to YouTube and watch someone who seems just like you and may even respond if you send her a message?

Disney Channel ratings have been sinking. Last month, according to Nielsen data, standard viewership was down 18 per cent among children aged two to 11 from the same period last year - even as rival Nickelodeon held steady.

Unlike the animation-heavy Nickelodeon, Disney Channel does not sell traditional advertisements, so ratings matter less. But Disney does sell sponsorships and it needs to keep viewership high to justify the fees it charges cable distributors.

Andi Mack got its start in 2015, when Mr Marsh asked a television writer named Terri Minsky to have breakfast. If anyone could help Disney Channel step in a bold, new direction, Mr Marsh had decided, it was her.

In 2001, Minsky helped a then- struggling Disney Channel find its voice by creating the hit sitcom, Lizzie McGuire. The network began pumping out comedies in its blindingly polished likeness, to enormous success.

But Minsky, whose other credits include Sex And The City, was not keen to create a show with child actors.

"I really didn't want to ever write for kids again because I do feel like it interrupts their development," she said. "There are certainly examples of people who have gone off the rails." (Amanda Bynes. Miley Cyrus. Mary-Kate Olsen. Vanessa Hudgens. Zac Efron. Demi Lovato. Britney Spears. Lindsay Lohan.)

Still, Minsky said something that Mr Marsh had told her at breakfast was intriguing.

"He said, 'We're kind of looking to do something different. We feel like ABC Family has abdicated that market for teenagers and there is an opportunity for us,'" Minsky recalled.

ABC Family, a Disney-owned channel aimed at viewers aged 18 to 34, was radically rebranded as Freeform in 2015. Ratings have dropped sharply since.

Emboldened by Mr Marsh's entreaty, Minsky pitched an idea she got while reading an article about Jack Nicholson's life; the woman he thought was his sister (until he was nearly 40) was his mother.

To Minsky's shock, Mr Marsh liked the concept. It was a self-discovery story that could appeal to children and their parents.

For the crucial lead role, Minsky cast newcomer Peyton Elizabeth Lee.

Aside from her presence on camera, Minsky liked that the young actress did not look as if she had fallen off a child-star assembly line: Lee, who is of mixed ethnicity, has short hair and a crooked grin.

"Disney was, like, 'Should we grow her hair out?' And I was, like, 'No!'" Minsky recalled.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 14, 2017, with the headline 'Disney Channel explores new direction'. Print Edition | Subscribe