China Anne Mcclain is Disney’s next big thing
Disney is always looking for the next big thing in the tween market, writes William Leith
IAM in the Hard Rock Cafe in midtown Manhattan, watching the Walt Disney Company do some business. This particular part of the business is selling nubile flesh to a global audience. But don’t worry. It’s family entertainment. It goes along with Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, and all the jolly places you can take your kids to eat hot dogs and go on rides. Disney is the largest entertainment company in the world; last year its revenue was $US40.9 billion ($42.2bn). It owns television and radio stations, even cruise ships. But selling nubile flesh to a global audience of nubile viewers — the tween market — is the key to this operation.
In the Hard Rock’s downstairs lobby there’s a solid bank of photographers yelling and flashing away, and the centre of attention is a slender 19-year-old called Debby Ryan. She’s wearing a metallic-blue frock and very high heels. A few years ago she was what Judy Taylor, Disney’s talent spotter, calls ‘‘ the NBT’’ — the Next Big Thing. Now Ryan’s show, Jessie, a sitcom aimed at the tween audience, is being broadcast in 167 countries. In it, Ryan — an unbeatable combination of sexy and dorky — plays a nanny in a blended family in New York, in which some of the children are adopted and the parents are always away working. It shows how teenagers sometimes have to act like parents because parents sometimes behave like teenagers.
Right now, Ryan is posing for the cameras. She flicks her hair, pouts and looks over her shoulder. She does Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe. The energy coming off her! The huge eyes! She has been trying to make it as an actress all her life. Taylor, who goes from city to city looking for talent, told me Ryan sent a tape of herself to Disney and she saw her potential immediately. Ryan was 14 and has been in Disney shows solidly since then. ‘‘ She’s one of our veterans,’’ Taylor says. And now, here’s Laura Marano. She smiles and opens her big eyes, and smiles again, and opens her big eyes again. Until a few days ago, she was the NBT; now she’s the BT. She’s 16. Disney has commissioned a new season of
Austin & Ally, the sitcom in which she stars. Laura plays a teenage songwriter with stage fright who meets a boy called Austin who wants to perform her songs. She has been determined to act since she was five. She’s the sister of Vanessa Marano, who is also a teenage actress. Their father is an academic. Their mother, who runs a children’s theatre in Los Angeles, didn’t want them to act because she didn’t want them to have a lifetime of rejection. But they rebelled, at the ages of five and eight, and insisted on getting an agent. Laura smiles for the cameras again. She doesn’t pout. She’s the Platonic ideal of the good girl who’s a bit sassy.
Finally, the NBT herself, China Anne McClain. She’s a child star from Atlanta who spent several pre-teen seasons acting in a family sitcom called Tyler Perry’s House of
Payne, about an African-American firefighter, his wife, children and various cousins and neighbours — very heartwarming.
She’s 13. Now she stars in A.N.T. Farm, about a school for talented kids. China’s character is called Chyna and her talent is singing. ‘‘ Her sitcom ability is off the chart,’’ Taylor tells me. On screen, she swaggers around and talks back to everybody. Here, in front of the photographers, she seems shy.
These girls, who don’t look quite like film stars or models but are somehow sweeter, are super-important to the Walt Disney Company. They are the face of its fastest growing and most profitable sector, Disney Channel, which has discovered and exploited a whole new section of the global population. This is the hundreds of millions of kids, mostly girls, between nine and 13 — ‘‘ Too old for toys, too young for boys’’. They’re too young for sex but old enough to have crushes. Wrestling with their proto-adult identity, they may become stuff. They’re a marketer’s dream. As teenagers aspire to be adults, tweens aspire to be teens. In lots of ways, tweens are the new teens. As a demographic, they are highly profitable. According to some business analysts, they are the saviours of the music industry because they’re the only group that still buys rather than downloads music. In the past seven or eight years, the Walt Disney Company has done everything in its power to get their attention, with tween sitcoms, movies and musicals. Remember Hannah Montana? And High School Musical? That cost $US4.5 million to make, was seen by 250 million people and generated a revenue stream worth $US1bn. That’s good business, in anybody’s terms.
Now the girls, along with some male tween stars, such as Tyler James Williams, 19, and Ross Lynch, 16, pose for the cameras with Gary Marsh, president of Disney Channels Worldwide. A bespectacled, inoffensive-looking man in his mid-50s, he’s the powerhouse and creative drive behind the Disney tween jugger-
KIDS ARE MEDIA SNACKERS. THEY WILL CONSUME MEDIA IN MANY, MANY DIFFERENT PLACES
naut — the vehicle, as one business analyst put it, that has just run over Mickey Mouse, leaving the poor creature for dead. As the cameras flash, I notice how the tween stars, as well as Marsh, manage to keep smiling the whole time. It would look natural in a photo, but it looks weird in real time. Marsh, you would think, has every reason to smile — he’s a huge force in the world of entertainment. A legend. The man who assassinated Mickey Mouse.
But he has worries. He can never relax because tween stars have a very short shelf life; as they age, they get too sexy or too edgy or just too old. Nude pictures of them turn up on the internet. When that happened to Vanessa Hudgens, the starlet of High School Musical, there was a huge fuss. ‘‘ This sort of thing keeps me up at night,’’ Marsh has said. And when Miley Cyrus, teenage star of Hannah Montana, was pictured wrapped in a sheet in Vanity Fair, the Disney world rocked on its axis. ‘‘ For Miley to be a ‘ good girl’ is now a business decision for her,’’ said Marsh. ‘‘ Parents have invested in her godliness. If she violates that trust, she won’t get it back.’’ he’s in. And here is the solution, standing next to Marsh, permagrinning into the cameras: Ryan, China and Laura. A lot is riding on these girls. As we speak, their new shows are on screens across the globe. The tweens are watching, remotes in hand.
Now to business. After the photo call, Marsh makes a speech aimed at advertisers and sponsors. Even though Disney is known as a cable company, funded by subscriptions rather than ads, that’s not true for all territories. He’s happy to say that, in the US, last year
‘‘ saw the strongest ratings ever across all our platforms’’. He speculates that ‘‘ if this year is any indication, so far, we’re poised to beat our own records’’.
Disney, he says, is the No 1 network for kids aged six to 11, the No 1 network for tweens and even No 1 in the category two to 11. The growth is amazing. Year on year, viewers aged six to 11 are up 25 per cent and tweens are up 33 per cent.
If he were talking about Britain, he would say Disney Channel was the No 1 kids’ payTV channel for the sixth consecutive year and reached more than 10 million British homes, which was more than one-third of all families. If he were talking about the worldwide operation, he would say Disney had just bought a 49 per cent stake in Russia’s Seven TV for $US300m, which would enable it to reach 40 million Russian households, and an Indian TV company, UTV Software Communications, for $US375m. And that it had just set up a free satellite service in Turkey, supported by advertising, which would reach 11 million households, in an arrangement similar to one that it made in Spain a couple of years before.
Marsh talks about