Disney's Green Teen Star Machine

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I'm Matt Holzman with The Business Brief, a guide to what's happening in and around the business this week.

You'd have to be living off the grid to have missed Disney's omnipresent roster of teen stars. From Miley Cyrus as  Hannah Montana, to Zac Ephron of the High School Musical TV movies, these teen sensations have helped turn Disney Channel from a Mickey Mouse operation to a teen touchstone.

Disney's been exceptionally savvy about the making and marketing of teen stars since as far back as the original Mickey Mouse Club, but their recent success is something that will make for a fascinating Harvard Business School case study, if it isn't already. And the focus of that study would have to be the billion-dollar franchise known as Hannah Montana.

Hannah Montana, who is in reality 15-year old Miley Cyrus, made business news headlines last year when tickets to her sold-out seventy-date concert tour were selling for as much as $3,000 a piece.

Miley's fame started just two short years ago with a Disney Channel TV show about a high school girl living a secret life as a rock star. Of course, Hannah put out CD's and music videos, and two year's later, there's a 3-D concert film with her real-life dad, Billy Ray "Achy-Breaky" Cyrus and a feature film on the way. And oh the merch! There are Hannah Montana karaoke CD's, Hannah Montana books, photo frames and bed comforters, backpacks and stationery and tons of jewelry, dolls and toys of all shapes and sizes, board games, video games, singing posters, candy -- and every possible item of clothing imaginable for your Hannah-obsessed little girl.

Having a party? There are decorations and plates and cups and gift wrap and party favors -- and you can even rent a Hannah Montana bouncy castle! And this is just the legally licensed stuff.

The current Disney teen phenomenon started on the Disney Channel in the early 90's with the New Mickey Mouse Club. That's where Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera got their start.

The Disney Channel was young too then, just ten years old, and though Mickey Mouse Club would launch these three and others to super-stardom, Disney didn't really own piece of them. It wasn't until 2001 when the Disney Channel had their first real hit that a new business model was born.

Hilary Duff, starring as Lizzie McGuire, was the Disney Channel's first triple threat: she could act, she could sing and she was infinitely marketable. She was funny and nice and a little bit sexy -- in a chaste, Disney kind of way.

So why is Disney so far ahead of the pack on the teen scene? Because they have an eye for talent and the businesses in place to capitalize on it. There's the Disney Channel and Disney Radio and Disney Films and Disney's Music Labels. And they're successful because they're genius marketers with every star cross-pollinating with other talent. The singing trio of heart throbs known as the Jonas Brothers appeared on Miley Cyrus' show Hannah Montana and then opened for her on her tour and suddenly they were huge! And of course there are all those highly malleable teen hormones fueled by the Internet.

But not all is well in Disney-land. In a strange footnote to this story, Disney's attempt to migrate their success on the Disney Channel to the Disney-owned ABC Network seems to have failed. According to Variety, one of the High School Musical TV movies that are so huge on the Disney Channel came in fourth in its time slot among young adults on Sunday, even finishing behind a repeat of NBC's America's Got Talent.

Disney's also worried that their current crop of stars is aging and they don't yet have successor to the ten throne. So who will be the next Miley Cyrus? Maybe it will be Selena Gomez from Disney Channel's Wizards of Waverly Place or Demi Lovato from Camp Rock. But you can bet that pretty soon some talented kid you never heard if will be a Disney star you wish you could stop hearing about.

I'd love to know what you think. Send me an e-mail at TheBusiness@kcrw.org. For KCRW, I'm Matt Holzman and that's The Business Brief.



Matt Holzman