Underscoring how rapidly the TV landscape is changing, just five years ago there was an entire 24-hour cable channel dedicated to rerunning episodes of daytime soaps someone may have missed. As the number of soaps shrunk and the proliferation of DVR viewing grew, Disney-ABC decided to replace SoapNet with a preschool channel. Disney Junior started as a programming block on Disney Channel on February 14, 2011 with Jake And The Never Land Pirates before launching as a channel a year later with Doc McStuffins to compete against Nick Jr. and Sprout. Its ratings have been on the rise ever since: propelled by hit Sofia The First and hot newcomer The Lion Guard, in 2015 Disney Junior ranked as the No. 1 preschool channel in total day for a third consecutive year in kids and women demos, towering over the competition with record-high linear ratings and logging nearly 5 billion minutes watched on its app.
But as it marks its fifth-year anniversary on Sunday, Disney Junior, itself aging out of the kids 2-5 demo, is facing a changing media environment. Kids in the channel’s target 2-7 demographic are growing up with tablets and smart phones, streaming content instead of watching on TV. While there were two main competitors when Disney Junior launched, now companies like Netflix and Amazon aggressively target the young set with originals. And leading premium cable player HBO just entered the space with the pickup of Sesame Street. On the eve of Disney Junior’s fifth anniversary, we talk to general manager Nancy Kanter about the channel’s evolution, exploiting Disney properties and the challenges ahead.
DEADLINE: Disney Junior started out pretty balanced between boys and girls, launching with Jake And The Never Land Pirates, and now it feels like there is more of a separation — sibling Disney XD being very boy-focused with the Marvel Universe and other shows, with Disney Junior catering more to girls with Doc McStuffins, the Sofia and Elena princess franchises, the upcoming Fancy Nancy. How has the Disney Junior brand evolved?
KANTER: I would not say that Disney Junior is more for girls than boys. I think we try to maintain a balance in our portfolio of shows. If you look at a show like Sofia The First or the upcoming Fancy Nancy, sure those shows are probably going to appeal more to girls than to boys, but we balance that out with Miles From Tomorrowland or The Lion Guard, or Mickey, which really is a very, very gender-neutral show, both from a ratings perspective and from a merchandise perspective, it’s equally loved by boys and girls.
It’s also important to us, with our audience of young kids, that we start to break down some of the typical stereotypes that you might think. Sofia The First, yes, she’s a princess, but her personality and the storylines include a lot of adventure, and what’s interesting is that while girls talk about her as the Princess Sofia, you hear boys talk about her as, oh, she’s a girl who goes on adventures. They’re able to look past the purple dress and the tiara and just see her as a character that they’re interested in and want to see what her stories are about. In Miles, you have Miles as the boy who’s on this magnificent space odyssey. He has a sister that’s the smartest of the bunch, the one who’s most interested in the science and the computer and the tech part. They have a mom who’s the captain of the ship. With Doc, we often have been surprised because yes, she’s a girl, yes, she has a pink, sparkly stethoscope, but the ratings for boys and girls are almost nearly equal. They’re interested in what she’s able to do, and her personality, her care and love for her family of animal toy characters.
DEADLINE: Is live-action something that you’re looking to go into? Your sibling Disney Channel obviously does a lot of that, but are you going to stay in the animated space or you are looking to expand into other areas?
KANTER: We are staying primarily, for a number of reasons. We’ve obviously seen most of our success around animated shows. Also because we’re international, and our content is around the world, live-action can sometimes be difficult to dub for non-English-speaking territories. It doesn’t look as authentic and as real, and the characters would look very non-local in many of our markets. Honestly, around the world in our demo, the animated series are the ones that seem to connect more with kids and find more success.
We are exploring other possibilities. The world of puppetry is something that’s very key and has been a part of preschool programming for a very long time, and so we’re looking into that because that doesn’t create the same issues for us as human live-action would.
DEADLINE: Disney is a company that puts a lot of attention on brands. Disney XD has the Marvel series, and you have a Lion King series. Are there any other properties that you are looking to add in a series format, maybe Frozen, or Inside Out?
KANTER: We’re always in development on many things. Some of them do come from Disney’s heritage properties. There are no immediate plans on either one of those properties. Sometimes, the studio-driven properties stay as studio films for quite awhile before you start thinking of a TV spinoff for them, but we are always looking at the library, and the heritage properties.
DEADLINE: Any titles you can mention?
KANTER: So many things are in the early, early stage, you hate to reveal too much because you never know what’s going to work and what’s not.
DEADLINE: Let’s talk about the current environment. It is increasingly challenging to keep young viewers in front of TV. The streaming services are making a big play for kids who have grown up with mobile devices, and an iconic traditional TV series like Sesame Street is moving to premium cable. How are you adapting, and what is your plan for Disney Junior going forward?
KANTER: We have our mobile platform, which we’ve had for several years now, and we keep trying new things where sometimes we will launch content on that mobile platform, Watch Disney Junior, before we actually launch it on the linear channel. We’ve been increasingly putting content almost day-and-date when it launches on the linear channels, you can also access it that same day or very soon thereafter on the mobile platform.
We absolutely recognize that the notion that you have to tune in at a specific time on a specific day to get your favorite show is not a reality for lots of kids, so we want to be responsive to that. On the other hand, the truth is that the majority, by far, of the viewing that kids do in our demo is still on linear TV. Now, they may not be watching it that day and time. They may watch it a day later, or two hours later, or even a week later, so it somewhat changed how we look at and how we measure success against ratings.
For us, it’s just looking at the picture of what does success mean for us a bit differently than we have in the past and using as many of the platforms that we can, whether it’s our own Disney Junior Watch app or shows that we have licensed to Netflix or that you can watch pieces of on YouTube. I think we’re all very aware that you have to be in a lot more places than you used to be five years ago when you could just be a TV channel destination.
DEADLINE: In terms of distribution, are you considering an additional play in the streaming world?
KANTER: It’s a conversation that’s ongoing. We’re all aware of the direct-to-consumer options that are out there that other people are taking advantage of, the licensing to other programming providers, programming services models. Nothing that I can tell you specific, but clearly, we are not unaware of just how fast the landscape is changing and how we have to really consider how are we going to reach our audience. It’s a different world than it was even five or 10 years ago.
DEADLINE: Looking forward, how do you see Disney Junior evolving in the next few years?
KANTER: Keep making really great shows, if I can have any say in that, and I think the growth will come in part by having more and more content that kids are going to be able to access and engage in more different ways, so that includes lots of different platforms.
I also think that the brand in these first five years has really built itself to be more than just television. Whether it’s our pro-social outreach that we’re doing in communities around health, around science, technology, math, around diversity, around kids’ aspirations. We have various partnerships outside the United States where we feel we can make a real impact in the community. My hope is that as we grow our influence and our impact within the world that families with preschoolers have, we’re a real part of that on a day-to-day basis.
DEADLINE: Are you optimistic about the future of kids television?
KANTER: I’m very optimistic about the future of kids television. I think the competition just makes us better. We just have to work harder and dig deeper, but it makes you smarter, it makes you bolder, and I think that’s what we have to be.