THE BACK PAGES

Everybody loves Hannah Montana

A show about a teen who is secretly a pop star has turned the Disney Channel into the most powerful producer of kids’ entertainment

JAIME J. WEINMAN January 14 2008
THE BACK PAGES

Everybody loves Hannah Montana

A show about a teen who is secretly a pop star has turned the Disney Channel into the most powerful producer of kids’ entertainment

JAIME J. WEINMAN January 14 2008

Everybody loves Hannah Montana

A show about a teen who is secretly a pop star has turned the Disney Channel into the most powerful producer of kids’ entertainment

THE BACK PAGES

JAIME J. WEINMAN

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tv

Move over, Fonzie. Take a hike, Friends. The most popular sitcom character ever is a bratty pop star on a videotaped cable TV show for kids. Hannah Montana, the Disney Channel/Family Channel comedy about a high-school girl (15-year-old Miley Cyrus) with a secret double life as a pop star, is the first comedy show in years to become a genuine full-fledged popular sensation. And not just as a television show. Because she plays a pop singer, Miley Cyrus has built a concert career in-character as Flannah Montana (plus a few songs as herself, without Hannah’s trademark wig), singing on Disney records, appearing at Disney theme parks, and now on an insanely popular tour sponsored by Disney. The Los Angeles

of two projects that has turned the Disney Channel into the most powerful producer of kids’ entertainment—the other, of course, is High School Musical. The set-up, like The Monkees or The Partridge Family, is designed to crossbreed TV comedy with pop music: Miley doesn’t want fame to interfere with her regular life, so she slaps on a blond wig and creates the Hannah Montana persona for her showbiz career. It owes a debt to the ’80s cartoon Jem and the Holograms, where the heroine was a blond businesswoman by day and a pink-haired chanteuse at night.

You can see why it appeals to the girls who watch the show and run to Cyrus’s concerts. Miley/Hannah has a superhero-ish secret identity combined with the usual elements of school, friends, romance, and a support-

Times reported that demand for tickets to socalled Hannah Montana concerts was the biggest “since the Beatles or Elvis.” There have been other TV characters who became multimedia sensations, but it used to happen because the public liked those characters and wanted to see more of them. Now it happens as part of a Disney marketing strategy.

Hannah Montana, which premiered in 2006 and is finishing its second season, is one

different identity elements—good girl or bad girl, academic or cheerleader—as they grow.” Disney has found the perfect marketing strategy for Hannah Montana: make girls fall in love with the heroine’s two identities, and sell them twice the amount of merchandise by creating toys and hairpieces for both.

Hannah Montana may be a brilliantly marketed show, but it isn’t a very good sitcom. The Cyruses and co-star Emily Osment (who plays Miley’s best friend) are appealing TV performers, but they often overact, straining for laughs instead of letting their natural charm come through. The subplots focusing on Miley’s brother (Jason Earles) are almost always unfunny and seem to be there primarily so Miley won’t have to be onscreen for the full 22 minutes. And the show does

ive dad (Billy Ray Cyrus, Miley’s real-life father). The best part of this fantasy is the idea that you can be a “normal” girl while living a slightly forbidden life, or as the theme song puts it, The Best of Both Worlds. Donald Meckiffe, assistant professor of communications at the University of Wisconsin (Fox Valley), says that this device is a way for Disney “to buy and sell the widest range of products and media with which young girls can try on

without live audience laughter and substitutes a robotic-sounding laugh track, causing guest star Larry David (who appeared as a favour to his Hannah-loving daughters) to quip: “I loved having a laugh track to back me up.”

What Hannah Montana also has to back it up is endless, relentless promotion. Meckiffe says that with the recent consolidation of all media—music, movies, TV—into a few

O corporations, a company can get kids hooked on a show by promoting it across the corporate spectrum: “The film arm and broadcast TV arm can be utilized to promote a special event on the cable channel. They are able to choreograph elements and windows of time across their various platforms.” By cross-promoting the show and playing it four times a day on cable, Disney can hammer a show into the public consciousness without having to expend much effort on the show itself.

It also helps that cable TV has become a refuge for people who are good at writing

bad but popular kids’ TV. Hannah Montana co-creator Rich Correll has over 20 years of TV experience doing almost nothing but family comedy, starting as an associate producer on the dismal final seasons of Happy Days and directing many bad-but-beloved shows for family-sitcom producers Miller-Boyett (Family Matters, Full House and Step by Step). Add in a stable of writers who used to work on network sitcoms, and it’s clear what’s going on here: with major networks uninterested in “family” entertainment, the formulas of bad network TV—in many cases, the same exact stories—have migrated to cable.

This combination of mass marketing and cynical professionalism has made it possible for kids’ sitcoms to create the one thing that almost never comes out of network TV anymore: ubiquitous multimedia superstars. Zoey 101, on Nickelodeon and Family Channel, turned Jamie Lynn Spears into a more popular performer than her big sister Britney. Lizzie McGuire, which kicked off the Disney Channel’s run of girl-powered sitcoms, made Hilary Duff into a singing star. Disney has a history of shoving its sitcom stars onto music videos and CDs, and the cross-promotion can turn proven failures into pop idols. After ruining The Cosby Show, Raven-Symoné released two records that bombed, but once she started doing the Disney Channel show That’s So Raven, Disney spun off a successful

music CD from the show. Network sitcoms don’t spin off anything anymore, but sitcoms for kids are multimedia juggernauts.

That’s because no network sitcom except possibly Family Guy has the kind of fanatical audience following that can spin off concerts, CDs and other merchandise the way Hannah Montana does. The reaction to the show, and the way it’s marketed by the studio, is like a throwback to 20 years ago when popular TV characters were on kids’ lunch boxes and spun-off tie-in pop records.

Those shows at least had to be good enough to appeal to a broad range of viewers. On cable, where a show only needs to appeal to

niche audiences, quality is irrelevant: Disney has guaranteed that kids who like the Hannah Montana persona will watch the show. Like everything else the Disney Channel does, this is really a rehash of something that network shows used to do all the time, using musical stardom as a way of attracting kids to a sitcom. It goes back as far as that godfather of TV and radio “family” sitcoms, The Adventures ofOzzie and Harriet; Ricky Nelson started singing on that show in the late ’50s, and his work as Ricky Nelson, sitcom character, turned him into Ricky Nelson, musical teen idol. The only difference is in scale: because companies like Disney and Nickelodeon own every possible type of media, the use of the pop-star market is built into these shows from the beginning, and protects them against anyone who points out that the writing isn’t very good.

All this means that whereas a network sitcom might get cancelled for having as many weak scripts as Hannah Montana, it’s

assured a happy life on cable. The moment the show premiered, many people understood that it was trying to use this music/ sitcom synergy as a substitute for actually making a show that could be popular for its own sake; as the fan site ultimatedisney.com scoffed, “this sitcom is a transparent attempt to give birth to an instant new Disney Channel crossover star.” Transparent it may have been, but it worked: if you can get a star onto the radio and the stage, her sitcom will be successful.

The only thing Disney needs to worry about is that the star might someday fall from grace and ruin its marketing plan. That happened

to Nickelodeon when Jamie Lynn Spears announced she was pregnant at 16. It almost happened to Disney when nude photos surfaced of High School Musical star Vanessa Hudgens, and if Miley Cyrus ever misbehaves, Meckiffe says, “then Hannah Montana will be understood differently.” Everything depends upon image and branding.

So that’s the state of the sitcom today: it’s like a 22-minute promo for a merchandising empire. But maybe that’s not entirely a bad thing. The saddest part about the decline of the sitcom on network television has been not the lower ratings but the lower cultural impact; network audiences may watch sitcoms but most of the characters don’t become pop-culture icons. With Hannah Montana and the cross-pollination of sitcoms and bubblegum pop, cable has developed a formula for getting people interested in sitcoms again. Now the next step is for someone to create an actual good sitcom around that formula. M