By Brooks Barnes
New York Times, April 13, 2009
LOS ANGELES — Kelly Peña, or “the kid whisperer,” as some Hollywood producers call her, was digging through a 12-year-old boy’s dresser drawer here on a recent afternoon. Her undercover mission: to unearth what makes him tick and use the findings to help the Walt Disney Company reassert itself as a cultural force among boys.
Ms. Peña, a Disney researcher with a background in the casino industry, zeroed in on a ratty rock ’n’ roll T-shirt. Black Sabbath?
“Wearing it makes me feel like I’m going to an R-rated movie,” said Dean, a shy redhead whose parents asked that he be identified only by first name.
Ms. Peña and her team of anthropologists have spent 18 months peering inside the heads of incommunicative boys in search of just that kind of psychological nugget. Disney is relying on her insights to create new entertainment for boys 6 to 14, a group that Disney used to own way back in the days of “Davy Crockett” but that has wandered in the age of more girl-friendly Disney fare like “Hannah Montana.”
Children can already see the results of Ms. Peña’s scrutiny on Disney XD, a new cable channel and Web site (disney.go.com/disneyxd). It’s no accident, for instance, that the central character on “Aaron Stone” is a mediocre basketball player. Ms. Peña, 45, told producers that boys identify with protagonists who try hard to grow. “Winning isn’t nearly as important to boys as Hollywood thinks,” she said.
Actors have been instructed to tote their skateboards around with the bottoms facing outward. (Boys in real life carry them that way to display the personalization, Ms. Peña found.) The games portion of the Disney XD Web site now features prominent trophy cases. (It’s less about the level reached in the game and more about sharing small achievements, research showed.)
Fearful of coming off as too manipulative, youth-centric media companies rarely discuss this kind of field research. Disney is so proud of its new “headquarters for boys,” however, that it has made an exception, offering a rare window onto the emotional hooks that are carefully embedded in children’s entertainment. The effort is as outsize as the potential payoff: boys 6 to 14 account for $50 billion in spending worldwide, according to market researchers.
Thus far, Disney’s initiative is limited to the XD channel. But Disney hopes that XD will produce a hit show that can follow the “High School Musical” model from cable to merchandise to live theater to feature film, and perhaps even to Disney World attraction.
With the exception of “Cars,” Disney — home to the “Princesses” merchandising line; the Jonas Brothers; and “Pixie Hollow,” a virtual world built around fairies — has been notably weak on hit entertainment franchises for boys. (“Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Toy Story” are in a type of hibernation, awaiting new big-screen installments.) Disney Channel’s audience is 40 percent male, but girls drive most of the related merchandising sales.
Rivals like Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network have made inroads with boys by serving up rough-edged animated series like “The Fairly Oddparents” and “Star Wars: The Clone Wars.” Nickelodeon, in particular, scoffs at Disney’s recent push.
“We wrote the book on all of this,” said Colleen Fahey Rush, executive vice president for research of MTV Networks, which includes Nickelodeon.
Even so, media companies over all have struggled to figure out the boys’ entertainment market. News Corporation infamously bet big on boys in the late 1990s with its Fox Kids Network and a digital offering, Boyz Channel. Both failed and drew criticism for segregating the sexes (there was also a Girlz Channel) and reinforcing stereotypes.
The guys are trickier to pin down for a host of reasons. They hop more quickly than their female counterparts from sporting activities to television to video games during leisure time. They can also be harder to understand: the cliché that girls are more willing to chitchat about their feelings is often true.
The people on Ms. Peña’s team have anthropology and psychology backgrounds, but she majored in journalism and never saw herself working with children. Indeed, her training in consumer research came from working for a hotel operator of riverboat casinos.
“Children seemed to open up to me,” said Ms. Peña, who does not have any of her own.
Sometimes the research is conducted in groups; sometimes it involves Ms. Peña’s going shopping with a teenage boy and his mother (and perhaps a videographer). The subjects, who are randomly selected by a market research company, are never told that Disney is the one studying them. The children are paid $75.
Walking through Dean’s house in this leafy Los Angeles suburb on the back side of the Hollywood Hills, Ms. Peña looked for unspoken clues about his likes and dislikes.
“What’s on the back of shelves that he hasn’t quite gotten rid of — that will be telling,” she said beforehand. “What’s on his walls? How does he interact with his siblings?”
One big takeaway from the two-hour visit: although Dean was trying to sound grown-up and nonchalant in his answers, he still had a lot of little kid in him. He had dinosaur sheets and stuffed animals at the bottom of his bed.
“I think he’s trying to push a lot of boundaries for the first time,” Ms. Peña said later.
This kind of intensive research has paid dividends for Disney before. Anne Sweeney, president of the Disney ABC Television Group, noted it in her approach to rebuilding Disney Channel a decade ago.
“You have to start with the kids themselves,” she said. “Ratings show what boys are watching today, but they don’t tell you what is missing in the marketplace.”
While Disney XD is aimed at boys and their fathers, it is also intended to include girls. “The days of the Honeycomb Hideout, where girls can’t come in, have long passed,” said Rich Ross, president of Disney Channels Worldwide.
In Ms. Peña’s research boys across markets and cultures described the television aimed at them as “purposeless fun” but expressed a strong desire for a new channel that was “fun with a purpose,” Mr. Ross said. Hollywood has been thinking of them too narrowly — offering all action or all animation — instead of a more nuanced combination, he added. So far results have been mixed.
Disney XD, which took over the struggling Toon Disney channel, has improved its predecessor’s prime-time audience by 27 percent among children 6 to 14, according to Nielsen Media Research. But the bulk of this increase has come from girls. Viewership among boys 6 to 14 is up about 10 percent.
“We’ve seen cultural resonance, and it doesn’t come overnight,” Mr. Ross said.
Which is one reason Ms. Peña is still out interviewing. At Dean’s house her team was quizzing him about what he meant when he used the word “crash.” Ben, a 12-year-old friend who had come over to hang out, responded, “After a long day of doing nothing, we do nothing.”
Growing self-conscious, Ben added, “Am I talking too much?”
Not even close.