Like most people, at the end of the day I like to relax. In the few hours before bedtime when I find myself alone and awake I usually flip on the television and unwind in front of the most comforting programming available. One night, weeks ago, I found myself turning to the Disney Channel, hoping that it could be that programming. I figured the Disney Channel was easy to consume, easy to process, its relentlessly optimistic technicolor tweenscapes easy to watch with a comfortable smugness, and would suit my need for soporific bliss binging perfectly. And I was right. And now, weeks later I am still watching. And more than that, I’m hooked on it. I hadn’t realized before as a casual viewer but the Disney Channel is more engrossing, captivating, and functional as an emotional narcotic than anything else on television.
I’m not the only one who’s into the Disney Channel by any means. The Disney Channel is a massively popular entity; according to the Disney Channel Worldwide Fact Sheet it is the #1 network not only in viewers 2 to 14 years of age but also for all cable TV viewers. A Disney Channel press release from January of this year available on youth network information site Nick and More shows that every year the number of viewers grows (with this year being the most successful yet) and reveals that the Disney Channel trumps peer youth networks like Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network consistently. And yet there is nothing about it that immediately jumps out as exceptional. The sitcoms are basic and of temperate size in terms of production. None of the stars in the post-Miley Cyrus/Selena Gomez era are that famous, at least to outsiders. Of course, the shows present various sanitized and colorful escapist worlds that are by nature comforting, but there are plenty of shows out there that boast the same qualities that don’t hold my attention like Disney. Thus, I figure there must something essential, something enduring about the Disney Channel that creates its enormous appeal not only to its target audience, but also to me.
The best place to start is the architecture, the basic format of Disney as a medium.
The framework of the Disney Channel seems uniquely designed for maximum engrossment. The most obvious and striking feature of the Disney Channel’s design is that it eschews commercials, which means that every break between a show is filled with promos for other Disney Channel television content, informative shorts about subjects from multiculturalism to dyslexia featuring the Disney sitcom stars, and clips from upcoming Disney films such as Cars spin/rip-off Planes. According to a 2003 Variety article the purpose of the no-ads strategy is in place to prevent young viewers from confusing content and advertising.
In terms of a viewing experience the strategy is immensely successful. The viewing experience of the Disney Channel operates under a unique pacing, a sort of Disney Flow. The rhythm of the channel is unique because of the constant Disney-related material, its hypnotic self-containment acting as the perfect antidote to the stuttering interruptions that are TV advertisements and creating a sense of isolation that toughens its quintessence: escapism. The Disney Flow creates the impression of an insular universe, divorced not only from the real world but also from the rest of television. The constant overlapping and ubiquity of stars creates the sense of a massive tele-community, an illusion of a hermetic paradise that you, the viewer, are allowed special access to. The Disney Channel as an entity unto itself is a world to be entered into, so far removed from everything else that it becomes a sort of utopia in the way that normal TV cannot be, it is a world whereas other channels are mere menageries. Of course, all TV is escapist and utopian in some sense, but the Disney Channel acts not as a purveyor of brief fancies like “all TV”, but rather an entire community. It’s an experience that feels like a vacation, free from all pretenses of commercialism with total emphasis on escape. The Disney Channel uses the same tried and true means of other channels for creating escapist worlds that viewers can disappear into, but unlike the rest of television, it is insulated from anything that does not pertain to itself, and thus the journey never has to end (Disney’s broadcasting of its own youth oriented programs at all hours also contributes to this, and sets it apart from nocturnally mature Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network).
It’s worth mentioning that all Disney Channel sitcoms (with the exception of Shake It Up) have 6 or fewer regular cast members. This in itself is not revolutionary; many other sitcoms follow this rule. But small casts are notable in comparison with all the rest of television, as compact groups of characters present a much more intimate, accessible, and easy world than say Game of Thrones. And the hyper-familiarity of the actors due to their cross-over work in various original movies, shows, and promotional material gives the various groups a level of closeness that is impossible on other youth networks.
Also important to note is how these small bands of actors function within the Disney “community”. A show like Big Time Rush (on Nickelodeon) had a small cast but that cast was confined to its own universe, isolated from the rest of the channel. The small casts on Disney achieve the same closeness the small cast of Big Time Rush did but the undercurrent of communality created by the Disney Flow’s constant presentation of its hyper-recognizable star gallery in some form (for instance, an Austin and Ally fan can get a nice dose of Austin and Ally via promo clips, both for the show or other material starring its actors, and/or actor bios during an episode of Good Luck Charlie) mediates it in such a way that all the actors seem constantly present yet can also feel intimate and closed off in the small cast/small set mini-worlds of the shows. Thus we have diversity, intimacy, and communality coexisting seamlessly for maximum engrossment on every level. This effective model is not totally native to Disney, the Nickelodeon mini-verse of Dan Schneider shows (iCarly, Victorious, Drake and Josh, and Zoey 101) is also prone to crossovers and communality, but the scale of Disney transcends all others in terms of an all encompassing network.
Of course, it also doesn’t hurt that Disney operates under a “transparent” system. The promo clips will often feature Disney actors behind the scenes of a new Disney Channel original movie (Teen Beach Movie being this month’s feature attraction) or Disney actors taking us inside their homes for a brief conversation about their lives and passions. There is an intimacy here that brings us closer to the featured players on the channel and propagates the idea of a sort of family. Of course, these clips are all simplistic and smiley, as expected, but they are presented in such earnest that one is driven to accept their reality. Yet that sense of realness, of average-ness and the relatable, is actually all another form of escapist fantasy. Making the familiar faces of the stars “real” means that the idealism that works so well as the agent of pleasure on the shows (aka the “unreality”) is being translated onto a simulacra of “reality” as well. The stars as real people gimmick makes one believe, in a strange sense, that Disney “reality” is as neat and optimistic as the fantasy of the shows. A feature on Austin and Ally star Laura Marano shows her making food with her family, excelling at the piano, and hanging out with clean-cut friends, and none of this is boring or filler, but rather a spectacle of reality that is not reality but being depicted as such makes life seem better. Obviously, this feels good to watch.
Essentially, the impression that I get of the Disney Channel from its promotional and structural apparatus is an isolated commune populated by a crew of gorgeous friends that do nothing but film various Disney things. As previously mentioned there’s a lot of crossover (Good Luck Charlie, Dog With A Blog, Shake It Up, and now Austin and Ally all feature actors from Disney Channel original movies) and Disney works hard to make the people all seem friendly, welcoming, and real. To watch Disney is thus to belong, to feel as if you are entering a world full of people you know, to be immersed in a reality that makes reality seem brighter. Realness is perhaps the most important facet of them all. As fake and sanitized as Disney may appear, its real hook lies in its belief, or at least the spectacle of its belief, in its own immersive alternative reality.