With "Girl Meets World,” Disney aims to stay relevant to tweens

  • Article by: BROOKS BARNES , New York Times
  • Updated: July 11, 2014 - 5:01 PM

With “Girl Meets World,” Disney shuns YouTube model while aiming to reach “plurals.”

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Producer Michael Jacobs, left, gave actors Ben Savage and Rowan Blanchard notes on the set of “Girl Meets World.”

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Disney Channel has a history of serving up programming that defines pop culture for pre-teenage girls: “Lizzie McGuire,” “Hannah Montana,” “Wizards of Waverly Place,” “High School Musical.” But the cable network has not found a new live-action juggernaut in years and its overall ratings are declining.

Is a new family sitcom called “Girl Meets World” the answer?

The show, a type of sequel to the 1990s ABC comedy “Boy Meets World,” arrives Friday and Disney Channel has extraordinarily high expectations. The goal is a supercharged version of “Good Luck Charlie,” a concluded series that managed to charm both children and parents — a rarity.

More broadly, “Girl Meets World” carries the burden of demonstrating that Disney Channel has figured out a new generation of tweens, a YouTube-obsessed group that researchers call plurals, a nod to today’s fragmented or pluralistic society.

Given the various pressures, “We feel a crushing weight on our heads,” said Michael Jacobs, a veteran writer-producer, who created both “Girl Meets World” and “Boy Meets World.”

Disney Channel remains cable’s No. 1 destination for girls ages 6 to 14, by a long shot. But despite popular shows like “Jessie,” “Dog With a Blog” and “Austin & Ally,” the network’s grip on that audience has recently weakened. According to Nielsen, Disney Channel’s full-day ratings for that demographic have dropped 20 percent this year compared with the same period in 2013, even when including a week of DVR playback.

Latest demographic target

To some degree, Disney Channel faces the same challenges as the rest of television: tons of new video competition from the Internet, a growing tendency among younger audiences to watch shows via iPad app. But the network is also encountering unique puzzles that arise from its focus on children.

While other entertainment companies continue to obsess over how to reach the millennial audience, Disney Channel is already deep into the plurals, which analysts at Frank N. Magid Associates consider to be anyone born after 1996. Research indicates that this group, the oldest of whom are now 17, have different tastes and perspectives than the millennials — they value happiness over success, for instance, and want to spend even more time with their parents.

The rise of short-form video on sites like YouTube and Vine is adding pressure on children’s television executives. Do they adapt their programming to reflect an Internet sensibility? Nickelodeon has successfully done that with “Sam & Cat,” a teenage sitcom filled with rapid-fire comedic pratfalls, the bread and butter of Web video. Or do they steer in a different direction? With “Girl Meets World,” Disney Channel is trying to offer something that YouTube does not.

“We want to be more heartfelt, more genuine,” said Gary Marsh, president of Disney Channels Worldwide. In developing “Girl Meets World,” Marsh said he challenged his team to ask, “How do we get back to the core emotional connection that families have with each other?”

Once more to the well

While “Boy Meets World” fans have cheered, some critics and columnists have faulted Disney Channel for reinventing an old TV property, a first in its history. “Reboots are what I do to my phone or computer when I cannot think of anything else to do to solve a problem,” Jessica Goldstein wrote in the Washington Post.

Disney says the real story is more nuanced. A few years ago, Jacobs pitched Disney Channel an idea that ended up on the trash pile. But a young executive at the network had been a huge fan of “Boy Meets World,” which ran on ABC from 1993 to 2000 before continuing in reruns on cable. Would Jacobs consider a new take on that show?

“I told them no,” Jacobs said.

The young executive was persistent and soon Jacobs came up with the idea of a sequel focused on a girl — the daughter of Cory and Topanga, the teenage lovebirds at the center of “Boy Meets World.” Ben Savage and Danielle Fishel agreed to reprise their roles, this time as parents. The girl meeting the world, Riley, 12, is played by Rowan Blanchard. Sabrina Carpenter plays her lightly caustic best friend, Maya.

Marsh said he liked “Girl Meets World” partly because it focuses on everyday kids dealing with everyday problems: no singing, no dancing, no wizards.

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  • Sabrina Carpenter, left, plays the lightly caustic friend of Rowan Blanchard’s character in “Girl Meets World.”

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