By Ryan Nakashima; Source: Associated Press
In this undated promotional photo released by Disney, actors Adam hicks, left, and Hutch Dano are shown in a scene from "Zeke and Luther." Disney recently revamped its Toon Disney network with an array of programs to cater to tween boys, a largely untapped demographic for them, and rebranded the channel Disney XD. (AP Photo/Disney XD, Jaimie Trueblood)
BURBANK, Calif. -- A funny thing happened on the way to remaking the Toon Disney channel into one that catered to "tween" boys: It got a lot more popular with girls.
Perhaps it's because teenagers Hutch Dano and Adam Hicks, the stars of the channel's most popular new show, "Zeke and Luther," exude a goofy innocence in a scrubbed-clean environment.
Whatever the reason, the slightly off-kilter rebranding effort at the channel now called Disney XD highlights a larger problem at The Walt Disney Co.: It has had difficulty winning over young male audiences.
Disney recently announced part of the solution, agreeing to buy comic book giant Marvel Entertainment Inc. for $4 billion, bringing characters like Iron Man and Spider-Man into the house of Hannah Montana, Cinderella and Pocahontas.
A closer look at Disney's ongoing efforts with the XD channel - where prime-time ratings this summer nearly doubled among boys aged 9 to 14 but tripled among girls the same age - helps explain why the company wanted Marvel's outside firepower in its quest for boy-focused content.
While there's no harm in attracting more girls to the channel, Disney also wants to draw more advertising for boy-focused products like video games and action figure toys.
That might have taken years on its own. Now Marvel is expected to bring more superhero power to Disney XD, adding to the 20 hours per week that Marvel content already runs on the network.
But going after a more male audience is a tough slog. Boys are fickle. They demand authenticity and appreciate a snarky sense of humor, while at other times, they just want to immerse themselves in fantasy worlds and animation.
Rich Ross, president of Disney Channels Worldwide, said the goal of rebranding Toon Disney as Disney XD was always "to create this destination for boys that is still inclusive of girls."
And the shift has already helped bring in some new ads.
Electronic Arts Inc. boosted its advertising spending about 30 percent this year on Disney XD after its switch, mainly to advertise kid-friendly video games such as "MySims Racing" and "Madden NFL 10."
One big challenge for Disney is that the boys market is well served.
More 'Star Wars'
Time Warner Inc.'s Cartoon Network, whose audience is more than 70 percent boys, plans to roll out the second season of George Lucas' popular "Star Wars: The Clone Wars" series this fall.
Cartoon Network is also branching into live-action and reality TV shows that leave little doubt about their target audience. "Dude, What Would Happen" features a group of teenage boys who try stunts like installing a lemonade tank into the hood of a car. "My Dad's a Pro" follows the Boston Celtics' Eddie House through the eyes of his 8-year-old son, Jaelen.
Ron Geraci, a senior vice president of research for the Nickelodeon kids and family group, questioned Disney's focus on boys.
Nickelodeon's tween audience draws almost equally between boys and girls on such shows as "SpongeBob Squarepants," "iCarly," and "Penguins of Madagascar."
"One of the fallacies in the kids marketplace has been that you can't program to both boys and girls," Geraci said. "We think the commonality among boys and girls is comedy and we've proved it time and again."