Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Disney on TV

Disney Channel is a premium-only service. Here in the UK, it is available on all three major premium TV services (Sky Digital - Satellite; Virgin Media - Cable; and Tiscali TV - True TVOIP).

Which is fine of course. Available to us are The Disney Channel UK, Disney's Cinemagic and Playhouse Disney, as well as their various Plus Ones and whatever. I think there's room for more. We'll get to that later.

We also get ABC 1 (A strange name, there is only one ABC channel here. Sky used to name their primary channel Sky One for similarly vaporous reasons, though they have since added a Two and Three). ABC 1 however is not a premium channel and is freely available, even on our Free-to-Air digital terrestrial service Freeview.

Freeview has but three children's channels. The rebounding CBBC serves CBBC and CBeebies (A channel for younger children in the vein of Playhouse Disney), whilst the moribund CITV is a waste of good bandwidth.

For you to fully understand the true sorry state of free children's programming in the UK and what Disney has to do with it, first you need a history lesson on UK Children's TV over the last decade or so.

In 1998, ITV relaunched their dominant CITV segment with a return to presentation. CBBC had been once again ailing for a period of a few years, bolstered only by a later finishing time and shows like Blue Peter and Newsround. CBBC's programming was characterised by some kids as being stuck up and not fun.

CITV had hits like evergreen favourite The Sooty Show, surprise hit Bernard's Watch and game shows like Finders Keepers and Fun House.

CBBC did have hit cartoons like Count Duckula and low profile cultural hits like Around the World with Willy Fog - an imported cartoon based on Around the World in Eighty Days, but overall, the wind was in CITV's sails.

A year before CITV relaunched, CBBC fell victim to the BBC's corporate rebranding. The CBBC logo was switched from a fun, colourful number to a boring black on yellow affair. The studio, previously anarchic with pictures and children's letters everywhere became ruthlessly modern and was stuffed with transparent "fun" gimmicks which ended up never being used other than at their introduction.

However, CITV was being poorly managed by the men upstairs. That it was still successful was down to the creative genius of lower ranking producers and managers.

Truth be told, things went wrong first in, yes, 1998 when ReBoot - a show with adoring fans - was axed. Management were not as in touch with he audience as their hits might suggest.

From 2000 onward, the production quality of CITV's shows deteriorated at an alarming speed. There were hits, like My Parents are Aliens, but on the whole the output was sub-par. To make matters worse, popular foreign cartoons Digimon and CardCaptors were axed despite their potential to be critical shows for boys for example.

But even British hot property Sooty felt the pain as producers clearly struggled o put together a consistently high-quality show on what was clearly too little money. Fans balked at a disastrous move in the last season to attempt to redesign the puppets and - in two cases - the characters.

The final season was nowhere near the "The New Sooty-era" peak of quality Sooty Heights which managed to match or surpass its predecessor, the final "The Old Sooty-era" series.

Things have gotten worse. CITV has moved to channel only - there is no CITV segment on ITV1 any more and CITV no longer produces its own shows - even My Parents are Aliens is gone. CITV now relies entirely on bought programming.

CBBC meanwhile has surged ahead, redesigning itself in 2002 and largely walking away with the market as CITV struggled to stay afloat. CBBC used bought programming like Mona the Vampire and surprise cult hit Arthur to lure kids over and those same children were then led into watching shows like Tracy Beaker and the sublime Jeopardy.

The heat-death of CITV is a shame. ITV were Disney's partner for free-to-air programming - to the point of co-branding quirky Saturday and Sunday morning show Diggit, which aired Disney shows like Recess, Pepper Ann and Buzz Lightyear of Star Command. This show replaced the older Saturday Disney.

CBBC has since relaunched again in a format more similar to their mid-nineties days. But the quality of the programming is ebbing slightly and some shows come across as increasingly aged. Blue Peter for example has never been closer to death. They did score a hit with an international co-production Shoebox Zoo.

The death of high profile free-to-air Disney programming (Toonattik, the lousy replacement for Diggit's lame replacements Diggin' It and Up on the Roof, still broadcasts Disney cartoons) has got me thinking. Why can't Disney offer a free Disney Channel?

It could run reruns, use some of Disney's archive of cartoon hits (Which are currently being under-utilised in my view) as well as live action classics like the Honey I Shrunk the Kids TV show.

Disney Channel 3 (As I'm going to refer to it) could have ads to support it, after all CITV was/is ad-supported, so why not? It would give wider access to Disney content and it wouldn't be a particularly difficult operation to run.

As to that 3...Disney Channel 2 should be a second channel, tandem to 1 (The current Disney Channel) which shows more cartoons. Kids do still like cartoons as well as live action sitcoms, Disney Channel 2 would be an outlet for new animated shows so live action production would not have to be cut back.

So firmly do I believe that a free Disney Channel on Freeview could be a smash hit, I would happily run it myself with payment being tied entirely to viewing figures, with no viewers meaning no money. I think I'd make a fair bit of money.

Not that I expect Disney to just e-mail me with a job offer. I'm simply making a point.

That being said, if Disney did want me to work for any part of Disney Channel UK (Aside from things like cleaning before you start) I would say yes, even to an assistant's job. In fact, I hope to take up such a position once I'm out of uni.

Working for Disney would be a dream come true ;)

Anyway, to put it simply, I think Disney needs to offer a free way for kids to watch Disney shows in the UK other than ITV's ailing weekend output. Even a segment on ABC 1 would be good.

But for crying out loud, schedule it as a 4-6/7 thing, after school when kids want to sit down and relax in front of the TV. Do not dump it in the early morning, a lot of kids like to sleep in, especially in the UK and make sure you keep the Saturday Morning cartoons tradition alive as well.

Jens Out