This is the profile of the Disney Channel
Advertising and Marketing
Since its inception in 1983, the Disney Channel has marketed itself as a commercial-free family channel, distinguishing it from other channels such as Nickelodeon and the Cartoon Network, which both regularly air commercials. Originally operating as a commercial-free premium channel, where viewers had to pay a monthly fee to receive the channel (Selznick), they switched over to basic cable in 1996 in hopes of increasing their viewership and competing with Nickelodeon’s consistently high ratings. However, despite changing to a basic cable channel, they kept their non-commercial approach until 2002, where they began to occasionally promote sponsors before and after shows (Selznick). Aside from the limited sponsorships, the Disney Channel remains committed to not running any advertisement spots during their programming. While their style of commercial-free programming might at first seem counterintuitive, the Disney Channel is able to successfully compete in the children’s market for several reasons, which will further be elaborated on in the following passages.
First, the Disney Channel has been extremely successful and adroit in their strategy of self-promotion and self-marketing, generating significant amounts of revenue via their merchandising and the integration of the Disney Channel into movies, CDs, books, video games, concerts, theme park rides, plush dolls, board games, apparel, jewelry, toys, and even food (they recently promoted their “Official Hannah Montana Concert Candy”, which included gummies in the shape of guitars and microphones). Instead of selling airtime to advertisers in-between shows, they constantly promote their own original shows, movies, concerts, and anything related to the Disney empire, creating a channel that is, as Norma Odom Pecora has described, “one long advertisement for the Walt Disney empire” (Pecora 1998). Indeed, the Disney Channel capitalizes on its ability to horizontally integrate its shows and characters, promoting the channel and its programming through multiple entertainment outlets, all which bear the Disney brand name. The channel itself relies on the larger Disney empire to promote its programming, essentially functioning as just another gear in the corporate machine that is Disney.
In order to fully understand the reach and success of the Disney Channel’s innovative marketing strategy of horizontal integration, let’s focus on one of its most successful shows, “Hannah Montana”. The series debuted in 2006, and in its second season, it broke the record for the highest rated basic cable series telecast of all time, with 10.7 million viewers (Starr 2007) for one episode. On most basic cable channels, ratings like that would result in the channel significantly increasing their price for a 30-second or 60-second airtime slot and making some serious profit. However, the Disney Channel has generated its profit from “Hannah Montana” not by selling airtime, but by selling “Hannah Montana” itself; by creating concerts, albums, films, and original novelizations of the series. In other words, the success of the Disney Channel is not necessarily reflected in the high ratings of its programming, but in the channel’s ability to market and literally sell its programming to anyone who’s willing to buy. And the money just keeps rolling in. The first “Hannah Montana” movie has pulled in a total worldwide gross of $70,642,036, while the second movie racked in a total worldwide gross of $155,545,279 (Box Office Mojo). The buck doesn’t stop there; the soundtrack albums have reached sales of over 13.2 million in the U.S. alone (Billboard.com). Indeed, it is evident that the Disney Channel’s strategy of marketing via horizontal integration has proved successful, largely due to its association with the well-established Disney brand name.
Aside from its profitable merchandising strategy, the Disney Channel uses another unique marketing strategy that appeals to both children and their parents: a pro-social message that tries to convince parents that by having their kids watch the commercial-free Disney Channel, they won’t be exposed to the world of marketing and advertising that other channels like Nickelodeon show. The non-commercial aspect of the channel is a key feature to the Disney Channel that truly separates it from any other channel that shows children’s programming, with PBS Kids being the exception. But the truth of the matter is that the Disney Channel is advertising to its viewers, perhaps even more so than any other channel with children’s programming. Its self-marketing has been completely overlooked by parents, who see the channel as free from commercial influence and a wholesome, pro-social place that welcomes their children and never throws commercials at them. On their website, the Disney Channel describes how they accept limited sponsorships, “with a focus on pro-social messages” (http://disney.go.com/crreport/childrenandfamily/partneringwithparents/marketingpractices.html). They detail their guidelines for any sponsorship that airs on the channel and describe how it must be not be “deceptive” or “exploitative” in any way, appealing towards an anti-consumerism philosophy, only airing advertising that promotes the greater good. This message seems targeted directly at parents, who support this approach to make advertising more of a moral and pro-social message instead of a strictly corporate one. In their article on online advertising, Andrew Hampp and Jack Neff describe how the Disney Channel has teamed up with Clorox to create online branded entertainment, which technically goes against the channels philosophy of being non-commercial. However, the authors argue that by marketing through the medium of the Internet, they haven’t had to “sacrifice their identity” as a commercial-free TV channel (Hampp and Neff 2009). Instead, they are successfully able to target their viewers online through advertisements that don’t necessarily meet the pro-social message that they preach.
The last merchandising strategy employed by the Disney Channel is its tactic of using audience interaction and the viewers themselves to promote the product. Debra Goldman, in her article on the Disney Channel, refers to their commercial-free approach as a strategy used to fuel the corporate machine that is Disney. Instead of traditional advertising where the company directly tries to the sell the product, she argues that the Disney Channel uses the viewers themselves to help the market the channel (Goldman). By focusing on audience interaction during their programming and promotion-commercials for other shows by constantly telling the viewer to “go online”, or to satisfy their craving for a show, they pull the viewer in and directly tell them to support the channel, creating a mutually beneficial relationship that satisfies both the consumer and the marketer. In other words, by watching the Disney Channel, they will provide the programming that you want to see, and they constantly tell you to watch as a sort-of reminder that without you watching, they couldn’t exist. The channel brings the viewers in, causing them to feel an obligation to support a channel that vocally appreciates and recognizes its viewers as part of the programming. This strategy has proved quite effective, as the active engagement of the viewers causes them to keep coming back for more. Additionally, they have created an online community on their website, allowing users to create their own pages, share their favorite Disney channel shows, and play online games against other Disney channel fans. This strategy of connecting viewers via the medium of the Internet has allowed the Disney channel to let the viewers themselves promote what they enjoy about the channel, which is a brilliant marketing strategy that makes the viewer feel like they are as important to the channel as the shows and original Disney movies themselves. Increased social networking creates a dedicated fan base that will support the channel and likely be introduced to new shows and merchandise via interactions with other users.
Today, the Disney Channel continues to use the marketing strategies of selling merchandise, promoting a pro-social message, and engaging the audience to successfully generate profit on a commercial-free channel. These three tactics allow the channel to avoid dealing with the backlash that has erupted against product placement, and give parents the sense that their child is not being exposed to the advertising world, while in truth, they are. The channel’s unique approach has been met with some recent criticism, however, as is explained in the next section.