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Disney In Depth: Disney Channel 30th Anniversary, A Retrospective
Brett Nachman   |  

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Three decades later, Disney Channel is as strong as ever. With its original programming that draws millions of young viewers, the network catered to families has evolved almost as much as the company itself over the past 30 years. Journey back in time with me as we explore many of the much-missed shows of years yonder, and travel into the future as we view the positive potential of Disney Channel.

The Disney Channel, as it was called when it launched in 1983, was a premium network that did not even air for 24 hours each day. How things have changed. The channel aired a variety of programming blocks catering to different audiences, from the young ones during the daytime hours, to adults late at night. The shows reflected the time period, of course. Ready to exercise with Mickey and friends in Mousercise? And who could forget Welcome to Pooh Corner? Certainly not this young viewer.

I grew up watching the Disney Channel in the 1990s, a time of rapid change within the corporation and also within the framework of this network. As a toddler I recall watching many of the shows carried over from the ’80s, including the “Disney Afternoon” series Duck Tales and Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers. I probably know those theme songs by heart. But what most of us remember from our early days watching the channel – that is, if you’re at least 20 or older today – was how imaginative every piece of content was. The programming interstitials that aired between shows familiarized myself with Mickey Mouse – even if his gloves were the only feature in sight. The sonorous elevator-like music that complemented the “here’s coming up next” promos relaxed my young mind. The diverse subject matter appealed to me, even if I was only a four-year-old kid. What other channel could you watch Donald Duck, Davy Crockett, a ‘60s-era comedy, a “modern” concert, and a nature documentary in 24 hours? None. Only The Disney Channel.

For anyone who watched the network until around 1996/1997, even if they were as young as me, it was a place of unspoiled magic and realism. Though much of the programming existed in fantastical worlds – how I wanted to live in Adventures in Wonderland, complete with hip bubble gum tunes – what I recall most vividly were the frank shows. The fictionalized accounts of Johnny Tremain and depictions of other historical events, even if “Disney-ized,” carried with me into my adulthood. I remember how real it felt when I saw Tremain burn his hand, crushing his potential in becoming a silversmith. That was the Disney Channel I loved.

During the channel’s major transition in 1997 I continued to love everything, even with its novelty in targeting different demographics. The classic Disney programming was allocated to the late night Vault Disney. The opening to that programming block, rendered in early computer animation, stuck with me, too. Playhouse Disney, catered to the young ones, boasted creative and fun shows, such as Jim Henson’s Bear in the Big Blue House. This nature-loving kid absolutely loved the animal-themed programs, game shows and original dramas. Going Wild with Jeff Corwin taught me about the amazing creatures that inhabit our planet. Mad Libs translated the nostalgic game to a fast-paced and fun-loving piece of reality, where real kids could win really cool prizes. The most memorable show of the late 90s, though, was the program farthest from reality: So Weird. This X-Files-for-kids was as much haunting as it was mesmerizing.

Disney Channel, its “new name,” knew its audience, who sought exciting novel content in conjunction with its beloved programs. But as children grow up, so do channels. The network gradually shifted its focus to pre-teen audiences through featuring the Zoog Disney programming block, leading us to interact with television by posting comments on a new platform: the Internet. Well, it may not have just debuted, but for many kids, Zoog Disney served as a perfect way for us to use the web. Individuals could even share their thoughts of the latest original movies. How cool!

And then came Even Stevens and Lizzie McGuire, two essential shows in marking the change in the channel. Funny and smart, they laid the foundation of a Disney Channel that would dedicate programs to that critical 7 – 14 age range. So the channel changed, for better or worse. Vault Disney dissolved. The reality, non Disney-focused documentaries, game shows and reality programming disappeared, too. Along came the influx of shows that aimed to be the next Lizzie McGuire. That’s So Raven tried. Hannah Montana succeeded. Others missed the mark completely. Some shows that entered the mix were extremely clever, but missed the boat – Phil of the Future, a perfect example. That show, with much of the Even Stevens-like humor, could have worked out well had it premiered three years earlier under the old, more gender-balanced network. But on a network dedicated to girls aspiring to be dancers, singers or pop stars, why would anyone want to watch a comedy about a kid from the future living in present day America? Hence once reason why Disney XD formed, to bring the boys back to Disney.

Disney Channel will never be what it was when I grew up in the 90s, but then again, that may not be such a bad thing. Everything must grow and adapt. To some extent, though, I feel the network could be returning to its glory days. One aspect I loved about Disney Channel was how it aired reruns of classic ABC comedies (Dinosaurs, Growing Pains, and yes, Boy Meets World). With the development of Girl Meets World, I think this suggests three points: Disney wants another hit based on something that connected with viewers over a decade ago; Disney knows it needs to balance off its line-up of singing girl sensation shows; and Disney yearns to develop a show that many members of the family will want to watch together. What Girl Meets World may be, that’s for another edition of the column. Additionally, the announcement of Disney Channel’s new version of Win, Lose or Draw suggests they want to return back to the game show market. Iron Man and company will join Phineas and Ferb in a MARVEL-themed special this summer, too. Smart move.

The network knows what is working – the ever-strong Phineas and Ferb – and what is not. They are trying to leverage their best programs and focus on fewer efforts to make the most of what they have to offer. A good strategy, that’s up for debate, but what remains certain is that the Disney Channel five or even thirty years from now will look nothing like today. Is that good or bad? That does not really matter. What counts is how we viewers – the twenty-somethings and those decades older – share and watch the programming with future generations. Perhaps your choices could change the future. Who knows? The decision may rest in your remote. Let us all hope, though, that Disney Channel never forget its strong past and translate that into its promising potential. Fingers crossed.

This is Brett Nachman, signing off. Share your favorite memories of Disney Channel as we mark this special anniversary. Follow me on Twitter for alerts of upcoming editions of the column, and remember to check out Disney In Depth, Thursdays on Geeks of Doom!

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