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 within 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 Jonas’ travails. As the group sang “Year 3000,” a hit on the station, the audience responded with shrieking, bouncing 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 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 also muscled their way into mainstream popular 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 the 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.
“In the 20 years I have known Rich, he has always been recognized for his ability to spot talent,” said Kevin Huvane, managing partner at Creative Artists Agency, who represents Cyrus. “Rich knows intuitively what is relevant to the marketplace and is tremendously savvy at building programming that resonates with audiences. In doing so, he has helped launch a generation of stars.”
Disney Channel hosts what it calls a “family dinner” at the launch of every series. The stars’ parents laud Ross and Disney Channel Entertainment president Gary Marsh for cultivating an environment where they can call or e-mail with questions or concerns.
“From Day One they take a hands-on approach in bringing you into the family,” said Dianna De La Garza, the former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader whose daughter, Lovato, stars in the new Disney Channel series “Sonny With a Chance,” now its highest-rated series.
Music, specifically the revival of the break-into-song Broadway-style musical with its sleeper 2006 hit “High School Musical,” catapulted Disney Channel into the zeitgeist. An estimated 290 million viewers worldwide watched love bloom between the basketball star and the brain.
“I have to tell you that making musical theater cool for kids has been a highlight of my career,” Ross told Fordham Law School graduates in a 2008 commencement speech.
It is still unclear whether the teen stars Ross has established will go on to long-term Hollywood success. While LaBeouf (“Even Stevens,” “Holes”) has appeared in several hit movies without the Disney brand, Duff hasn’t had a breakout role post-Lizzie McGuire. She split with Disney in 2003, after talks to move “Lizzie” to high school — and the ABC network — broke down over money. Duff did not respond to e-mailed questions.
Nickelodeon has tried to steal some of Disney Channel’s thunder: The series “iCarly,” about a teen girl who hosts her own Web show, now draws in an average of 2.7 million viewers, outperforming “Hannah Montana,” according to Nielsen.
As the two networks compete for the affections of tween girls, Ross has set his sights on a new and notoriously elusive audience: tween boys. He renamed Toon Disney as Disney XD, which launched in February with the action-adventure show “Aaron Stone,” in which a video-game virtuoso leads a double life as a crime fighter.
It also added “Zeke and Luther,” in which two best friends try to become world-famous skateboarders. He thinks if Disney can fill the vessel with the right content, the boys will get on board.
“Everybody says they’re just going to play games, and certain age groups are going to go on MySpace, and oh, they have school and their homework,” said Ross of the skeptics.
“Is it going to be like Disney Channel a week later? Disney Channel is 12 years in the making,” he warns. “It took seven years before we got ‘Lizzie.’ It was nine years for ‘High School Musical.’ We’re the overnight 12-year sensation.”