In March 2006 something momentous happened, at least in the collective consciousness of Generation Y. That month, a new show launched about a young girl who leads a secret double life as a famous pop-rock star.
Reviews weren't great. "Definitely misses a beat or two," huffed Multichannel News. "Not the finest of its kind," sniffed the LA Times.
The program went on to become a huge success with No. 1 Billboard albums, a sold-out, 70-city arena tour, a 3-D movie that's earned more than $65 million so far and merchandise tie-ins conservatively estimated to be in excess of $1 billion.
That show was HBO's The Wire. No, seriously. If you haven't guessed already, it was the teen phenom known as Hannah Montana on the Disney Channel. The man who greenlit Hannah is Rich Ross, the same 46-year-old exec who grokked that High School Musical was the Grease of its generation. Ross looked beyond Billy Ray Cyrus' mullet to see potential in his now 15-year-old daughter, Miley Cyrus, aka Hannah Montana. As president of Disney Channels Worldwide, including the just-announced boy-skewing Disney XD, Ross has a talent for unearthing something oxymoronic: Hot fads with staying power.
Andy Mooney, 53, chairman of Disney Consumer Products, deftly translates them to award-winning, lifestyle-based licensing programs. Hannah Montana's line includes everything from fashion-forward frocks to fully-functional guitars scaled down for little girls' hands. Together with High School Musical, Montana merch is projected to reach $2.7 billion in sales throughout 2008, up from $400 million in 2007, the year the goods debuted.
Live-Action, Live Sales
Ross has been at the Disney Channel for 15 years and was responsible for its early tween hits, such as Lizzie McGuire, which showed the potential for nonanimated sitcoms and this burgeoning audience. He immediately saw something special in Hannah. "So many things about it worked," said Ross. "It's not just that she's a rock star—the transformation and role play are important—it's that she's relatable, too. She's someone you want to be friends with. And she's working to balance what she has in her intense life."
Today, Hannah Montana is the No. 1 show among kids 6-14, and Cyrus and/or her alter ego Montana (it's hard to keep up) has two No. 1 albums and a tour under her belt.
"She's doing great," said Carissa Rosenberg, Seventeen magazine's entertainment director. "Viewership for the Teen Choice Awards [which Cyrus hosted on Aug. 4] was up 80% among teens over the year before and her last album [Breakout] sold 371,000 copies the first week it came out. Miley Cyrus herself is a brand, not just Hannah Montana."
Targeting a sweet spot of girls 8-12 years old, the Hannah Montana licensing program taps into the duality of being a tween today. "It is about everyday girls with secret, superstar lives both real and imagined," the sell sheet notes. "All girls can relate to girl next door [show character] Miley Stewart, but they want to be like her alter ego, Hannah Montana."
Key product attributes include friendship, music, self-expression, secret identity, pop-star glamour and West Coast celebrity life. The program embraces apparel, toys, consumer electronics, home, food, health, beauty and pet categories, among others.
"They've merchandised it in a very creative way where they're able to reach tween girls but keep the merchandise attractive to a younger girl, too," said Charles Riotto, president of the Licensing Industry Merchandisers' Assn.
Riotto attributes this to DCP chairman Mooney, a former Nike CMO who wrung up $30 billion in sales by developing Disney's Princess line and managing Pirates; The Jonas Brothers TV movie, Camp Rock; and Cars properties. "Since Andy's come on, their licensing programs have become much more cohesive. There's been a flow from product to product," Riotto said, adding that there's no question that Disney owns the tween space right now with High School Musical, Hannah, Camp Rock and plenty of stars in the stable. "They keep coming out with these new properties that hit the bull's-eye with consumers. Thanks to Andy, they merchandise them in a very effective way."
Mooney refers to the channel as "a 10-year overnight sensation" in terms of tween might. "High School Musical completely changed the landscape," he said. "It surprised us how much of a broad-based merchandise program we could do. Hannah Montana was even bigger and quicker on its heels. We saw the potential with the fantasy role play. It's like Disney Princess for older girls. The story really struck a chord, as Miley herself did."
The broad array of lifestyle merchandise was a pretty easy sell, Mooney said, and people were knocking on Disney's doors. Wal-Mart, for one, made a huge commitment and opened Hannah Montana back-to-school boutiques at its megamarts. In year two of her licensing program, Miley/Hannah's look is decidedly more retro '80s new wave. Girls, after all, just want to have fun.
The Risk of Being Real
But Hannah isn't a cartoon character. Basing a character on a real person can be risky, but it can also bring its own level of fascination. Perhaps that human quality helps to make Miley Cyrus even more fascinating to her young fans. To Disney's and Cyrus' credit, the character is more of a "real" girl than a traditional Disney princess. On the other hand, many are projecting Miley will go the way of Britney (as presaged in a memorable South Park episode) and go from superstar to super trainwreck before she reaches the legal drinking age.
"Miley writes her own songs and they're relatable to so many girls," Seventeen's Rosenberg said of the sassy Southerner with the gargles-with-razorblades voice. "She has a little edge to her and she's going through what other teens are going through, along with being this tremendously huge star for Disney."
"[Teen idols] aren't generally built to last. They have an enormous amount of appeal for a demographic whose tastes change quickly," said Cliff Chenfeld, founder/president of Razor & Tie Music, the Kidz Bop label. "The audience gets older and the artist wants to evolve with them. It's a natural cycle. Sometimes a guy like Justin Timberlake breaks the cycle, but most can't."
Actually, it seems to be the over-25 crowd leaning over laptops for TMZ updates on the latest pearl-clutching Miley moments, a la her provocative iPhone photos (allegedly snapped and sent to smoldering Jonas boy Nick) or her Mean Girl-esque parody of her Disney "rivals"—if you buy the gossip—Demi Lovato and Selena Gomez. But tweens? Many are at the mall buying Hannah T-shirts or listening to her tunes on Mix Max Mp3 players.
Unless a purity ring is chucked or immaculate conception intervenes, tweens will buy tour tickets, go to see her new flick in 2009 and watch the third season of Hannah Montana, which the actress/singer is currently shooting.
Brenna Howe, a 12-year-old from Valparaiso, Ind., does not read the latest Cyrus dirt online. She has Hannah Montana posters on her bedroom walls and has choreographed a cheer routine to a song. "I watch her show all the time," Howe said. "I don't care. That kind of stuff doesn't matter to me."
"I like Miley Cyrus but if it weren't for the rumors, I'd probably like her more," said Howe's friend Madi Hoth, also 12, a self-confessed OJD (Obsessive Jonas Disorder) sufferer who's a little more tapped into the Perez Hiltons of the WWWs. "She's not a good role model. I know she did that thing with the videos and I really like Selena. She seems like a really nice person."
Still, even Howe said that hasn't affected her Hannah habits. She still watches repeats of her favorite episodes and saw the Best of Both Worlds concert at a friend's house the week it came out on DVD. "I like a lot of her music, and I still do respect her," she pointed out. "I just don't love her like the Jonas Brothers."
"Six months from now she'll still be very, very big—we're not in Britney Spears meltdown land here—but if you look at the history here, these things tend to slow down or evolve," Chenfeld said. "Disney is run very much like a sports team with new, younger people coming up behind [these stars] who are being trained and groomed. They're amazing at it." The Disney tween juggernaut will soon include a J.O.N.A.S. show starring—who else?—the Jo Bros, and the Demi Lovato vehicle Welcome to Molliwood.
Ross explained that Disney TV brands work their way through three lifestages: launch, build and sustain. The Jonas Brothers TV movie Camp Rock is still in launch phase, while The Wizards of Waverly Place (Selena Gomez's show) has proven to be enough of a hit that it's in build mode. High School Musical and Hannah Montana are fully in sustain and Ross says there's no plan for putting them out to pasture as long as they are performing. (Hannah's fourth season is up in the air: Both Disney and Cyrus have options on whether they will continue.)
"It's about keeping it fresh," Ross said. "If people question why we're doing it, I say, 'Why is there a Harry Potter 6?' Once you run out of great stories to tell, that's the end."
Photo by Tom Atwood