Nothing Goofy about this TV talent spotter

Disney TV boss Anne Sweeney is ranked 15th most powerful person in the world. She talks to Esther Walker about new movie 'Camp Rock', follow-up to 'High School Musical'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Anne Sweeney, co-chair of Disney Media Networks and president of Disney-ABC Television Group should, by rights, be pretty pleased with Russell Brand.

Before Brand insulted, on live TV, the Disney-backed pop band Jonas Brothers, few childless adults in the UK knew who they were. But Brand's pretend plucking of youngest Jonas Brother Nick's virginity has catapulted Jonas Brothers and their new Disney-made film, Camp Rock, (the premiere of which Sweeney is in town to promote), straight into the UK news agenda. You can't buy publicity like that.

But if Sweeney is pleased, she is being discreet about it. "I think you summed up [Russell Brand's] performance pretty well," she says when we meet. (That morning I had said in an article that Brand went down with the audience about as well as a "cold cup of sick".) "But I don't think it was a British thing," she continues, with the magnificent diplomacy of an American multi-million dollar media network president. "I just don't think he had enough material."

Camp Rock is a made-for-TV movie for the Disney Channel and is a follow-up, but not a sequel, to the staggeringly successful High School Musical and High School Musical 2 (High School Musical 3 is out in October); when HSM2 premiered on the Disney Channel in the US last year, it had 18.6million viewers – the highest total viewers ever for a cable TV broadcast.

Camp Rock stars the Jonas Brothers (Kevin, Joe and Nick, who are all under 21) as a band, Connect Three, that has lost its way and the lead singer must return to Camp Rock, where the band formed, to re-discover his musical roots.

The Disney Channel has made more than 80 original for-TV movies, but it is only really the High School Musical series and now Camp Rock that have become global brands in their own right. How did it happen?

"We turned the strategy round so that the movies were really relevant to kids' lives and touched on themes that were important to them," explains Sweeney. "In particular, we honed in on the nine to 14-year-old audience – an age group who have largely been forgotten by every television outlet. These kids told us, in focus groups, that they were too old for Nickelodeon but they were too young for MTV; they had nowhere to go.

"This is a group who are in middle school and their problems are quite specific; they were having to change class for the first time as well as becoming adolescent and starting to ask themselves 'Who the heck am I?' We went straight for those issues and the result was High School Musical, which has become the seminal movie from the Disney Channel. It really spoke about all of those issues; it is inspirational and totally relevant." She pauses. "Although, okay I admit, I don't know anyone who breaks into song as they're walking down a hall." There is nothing dark in the High School Musical series whatsoever. Everyone is good-looking and well-dressed and it would be ludicrous if aimed at an older teen audience, (my 19- year-old sister calls it 'beyond lame'), but the nine to 14-year-old age group can't get enough of the jolly sing-a-long songs and non-threatening principal boy, Zac Efron and the wholesome principal girl, Vanessa Anne Hudgens.

"A brand, like Disney, really boils down to the relationship you have with your customer," says Sweeney. "People grow up with Disney; the brand isn't just for fun, it's inspirational and aspirational and we're constantly keeping that relationship with our customers fresh and fun. And that's why we're different from all the other media networks out there."

People in the industry talk about the "Disney Difference", and what they mean by that is Disney's awesome power: its enormous resources, its limitless cross-marketing potential and slickly co-ordinated promotional platforms. When Jonas Brothers were dropped by Columbia Records last year Hollywood Records, the music publishing arm of Disney, noticed that they were a major hit on Radio Disney, picked them up and not only make them chart-topping musicians, they turned them into TV stars.

The TV promotes the album sales and the album sales promote the TV movie and, later, the TV series. That's not to mention the manufacturing systems already in place to produce a full range of merchandise and the global chain of Disney stores in which to sell it.

Few can compete with that kind of infrastructure, combined with the longevity of the brand, and that is perhaps why Forbes ranked Sweeney as the 15th most powerful person in the world – not just in TV or the media, but the world – she sits 31 places above The Queen.

Although Sweeney's history and experience is in children's programming (she worked for Nickelodeon before Disney, managing the channel's introduction to the UK) at Disney she has moved into adult programming, too, picking such winners for both sides of the Atlantic as Grey's Anatomy, Desperate Housewives and Lost. How does she manage to spot hits all the time?

"If any of us knew the recipe for a hit we'd be geniuses!" she says. "But it really boils down to the storytelling and character and those are the two primary things we look for. For example, someone like Shonda Rhimes who created Grey's Anatomy and [the spin-off] Private Practice can have a long involved conversation with you about all the characters, what they're thinking and what they're feeling."

Disney and ABC coped with the recent writers' strike, which Sweeney describes as "devastating" by getting out their tin hats. "We stayed with our series for as long as we could, we went into repeats, we put on reality shows that we already had planned to put on in the spring and the summer and toughed it out," she explains. "And then when the strike was over everyone went back into the writing rooms and started again.

"I think that the relationship between the writers and the talent, while it was distant for a while because people weren't talking, is fine now. I do feel, with us, that everyone is happiest when back at work and I don't think that any relationships were harmed. No one enjoyed the strike; it was devastating to our city and our country. The loss of jobs and income to all the below-the-line people was acutely felt."

Perhaps Sweeney's greatest strength is her attitude towards technology. It was she whom Steve Jobs, from Apple, rang to give her a preview of the Video iPod with a view to providing downloads of shows like Lost and Grey's Anatomy from iTunes to iPods.

"It was hugely ground-breaking," she says. "It was a shock to the industry and it caused us to think very quickly about what could happen with digital. I am lucky that, because of my two children, I have seen first hand this digital revolution. My daughter Rosemary just went off to university on the East Coast and I was helping her pack up and ship boxes across the country and we were deciding what to ship and what to buy over there. And I said 'I'll buy you a TV when we get there,' and she said 'I don't need a TV,' and I said 'You're having a TV if I have to nail it to the wall,' and she said 'Mom! If I want news or shows I just go online.' It was such an interesting moment."

Comments