Monday, June 22, 2009

Rich Ross Had a Mouse Ear for 'Tween' Talent

As Disney Channel president , Rich Ross led TV's pursuit of the 'tween' audience, creating wildly popular personalities as well as programs that have muscled their way into mainstream culture.

By Dawn C. Chmielewski

As the Jonas Brothers took the stage at the Dallas Convention Center on Nov. 18, 2006, the group had little to sing about.

The band's advocate at Columbia Records had left and the label was dropping them. Few gigs loomed on the horizon. But the crowd at the Radio Disney 10th anniversary concert was oblivious to the Jonases' travails. As the group sang "Year 3000," a hit on the station, the audience responded with shrieking enthusiasm.

The reaction caught the attention of Disney Channel President Rich Ross, who had been listening to the performance backstage.

"He ran up to me and said, 'I've never seen anything like this in my life. I want you to know they could be so big,' " recalled Kevin Jonas Sr., the boys' father and manager. "To this day, I look at that moment as the turning point for the Jonas Brothers."

The Jonases, who now boast two platinum albums, their own Disney Channel show, "Jonas," and a 3-D concert movie, are among the youthful stars who owe their big break to Ross, the man who could be called the father of "Tween TV."

Since his arrival as senior vice president of programming in 1996, Ross has transformed Disney Channel from a cable television backwater that ran old films and educational fare into a reliable profit engine for the Walt Disney Co.

But more than that, he led TV's pursuit of the 9-to-14-year-old "tween" audience, creating wildly popular personalities and shows that not only dominate the age group's attention but have muscled their way into mainstream culture: Hilary Duff as "Lizzie McGuire," Miley Cyrus as "Hannah Montana," the "High School Musical" movies and now the Jonas Brothers.

Ross targeted a void in children's television -- the yawning gap between Tigger, Pooh and the Disney princesses, and innuendo-laced prime-time shows. Before Ross' efforts at Disney Channel, no network courted the age group, which influences roughly $43 billion in spending annually.

"They existed. They weren't programmed to," Ross said. "They were either forced to slum off younger stuff or watch what their parents thought was inappropriate." In creating programming for those viewers, Ross helped launch the careers of many of today's most celebrated figures in young Hollywood, including Shia LaBeouf, Zac Efron and Cyrus. He hopes two rising Disney Channel stars, Demi Lovato and Selena Gomez, will succeed Cyrus as tween phenoms.....

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