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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents -

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-



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

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