The competition is over. There are some great new shows on the way (more info here), but Disney Channel’s latest series, Andi Mack, has already taken the crown from any series Disney or its competitors can magically conjure in at least the next twelve months. (I’ll limit this to TV series since Descendants 2 will inarguably dominate summer 2017.) Even more impressive, Andi Mackdoesn’t even premiere on TV until this weekend. Ironically, both Disney Channel and Nickelodeon development have spent the better part of the past decade rejecting shows with the elements that make Andi Mack so special.
For ten years, the ivory towers have sent down wizards, superheroes, teen doctors for superheroes, superhero families, prodigies, ghosts, bionics, clairvoyance, and even a talking/blogging dog. It’s not over. Disney has already ordered Right Hand Guy, a live action comedy about a boy and his sentient, talking right hand. (It’s the revenge of Oobie!)
Andi Mack is the antithesis; a scripted show based in reality. It’s a low concept show centered around kids at school and at home. Read that sentence again. It’s critical because that sentence spells out the the precisecombo of elements that Disney Channel and Nickelodeon have, by and large, rejected for years (we’ll get to Girl Meets World), opting for sizzle (flashy “high concept” shows) over steak (low concept, relatable, real-life situations). Those rejected elements are precisely what the audience has been demanding; which underscores a fundamental misunderstanding of the 9–14 (tween / Gen Z) demographic.
Background on the Disparity
Back around 2003, Lizzie McGuire and Even Stevens set the bar for low-concept programming in the tween world. (Older demographic examples include Everybody Loves Raymond, Friends, Seinfeld, and Family Ties). The Disney Channel shows connected with just about every kid in America (and most other modern countries). The network was still relatively young and had show creators who really “got” the audience. Fast forward to 2008. Hannah Montana at Disney Channel and iCarly at Nickelodeon were dominating tween TV. Both dealt with real issues of friendship, but in a less core family scenario (one with a famous rock star dual personality and the other with an older brother-guardian.) By the time Wizards of Waverly Place(another Piper’s Picks favorite) premiered, the pendulum had swung to high-concept programming. With few exceptions (i.e. Good Luck Charlie), the networks have aimed straight at fantasy and high concept, eschewing shows like Lizzie and Even Stevens.
Tween-centric networks have failed to engage their demographic and understand how the audience has changed since 2009. The focuses today are on industry stats (a quasi-science of its own), magazine articles and pitches from showrunners who often have had big hits on adult TV, but whom are only anecdotally familiar with Gen Z. It seems that very little attention goes into researching what viewers are communicating through in comments to 3rd party videos, forums, blogs, and social networks (such as Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, etc). Real research takes time and experience, but provides far more accurate insight. What I’m seeing are internal failures to know the audience.
Young Hires Fail Even Younger Audience
In my experience, upper management has filled their ranks with Millennials as a patch to reach Gen Z (or, as some are now calling it, “iGen”). It’s backfired on several fronts. First, young hires are often handed high profile positions before assimilating into the corporate culture. They don’t yet have a grasp on the company’s history, content, talent, or even younger audience. Second, many of the young hires are using the job as a stepping stone into an older demographic. (It’s amazing how few people in the corporate end of Disney appreciate the brand, its history, or demographic.) Finally, Millennials and Gen Z are vastly different.
Anyone who grew up with the Internet is often lumped together into the same generation, but Millennials and Gen Z seem to have more differences than similarities. Some say the two are complete opposites. I’m finding that Generation Z has more personality traits in common with Gen X than Millennials. Technology aside, Gen Z has grown up seeing more violence in the world and in their entertainment and very different socio-economic conditions. The many differences are beyond the scope of this article, but continue to exemplify how the market has changed while tween networks have not. For our purposes, the two noteworthy distinctions are that Generation Z replaces tolerance with togetherness or collectivism and focuses on realism in lieu of optimism. These two nexuses are where Andi Mack breaks through.
A Prodigal Creator Returns & A Girl Meets Cancelation
In 2015, the script for “Andiland” landed on my desk. The name was later changed to protect the innocent…literally. (Note to Industry creatives: always run a Google search on names and titles.) The show didn’t have a confirmed network affiliation at the time. Two lines on the cover of the script said enough: “a pilot…by Terri Minsky.” The creator of Lizzie McGuire was back. My guess was that, if casting skewed older, the project would end up on Freeform (most still prefer to call it “ABC Family”) or Lifetime since the material was more intricate. If casting went younger, Disney or Nick would snap it up.
It was clear from reading through the first pages of the script that Andi Mack could potentially get Disney or Nick back on track. The story felt like it had a Lizzie McGuire authenticity, but dealt with some more complex issues and had a more mature feel. (Note: maturity is another descriptor often used for Gen Z over Millennial kids.) These are more factors that Disney Channel has adamantly turned away, leaving many in the kids entertainment space wondering if the high concept pendulum would ever swing back.
Girl Meets World is the closest recent exception to the high concept “rule”. It brought back one of ABC’s big properties, Boy Meets World (1993–2000), along with the creator, two leads (Cory and Topanga), and guest appearances from other cast members. In doing so, Girl Meets Worldrecaptured some of the the tween girl demographic that had defected to Nick and bridged two generations of fans through an under-valued asset, nostalgia. It was a smart branding and a very solid concept.
If there are two thing that executives like, it’s being able to make a safe bet and point the finger when they lose. For the reasons above, Girl Meets World was all-but unrejectable (grammar stretch noted). However, the show didn’t quite measure up to some of Disney’s top performers. It drew fire from Millennials and older Gen Z-ers for being un-relatable and preachy (life lessons at the end of every episode were more acceptable in ’80s cartoons). While Girl Meets World didn’t spell a complete paradigm shift back to relatable, low-concept shows, its popularity was enough to crack open the door for Andi Mack. Add to that, Lizzie McGuire was gold for Disney Channel. Its popularity was beyond the reach of everything at the time, short of a salary dispute. With Terri Minsky back at the helm, Andi Mack was another very safe bet. I think it’s safe to say that the pendulum has not swung back at Disney. More than likely, Terri Minsky just pushed it over a bit, bringing Disney Channel its first entirely new, low concept show in years.
Know Thy Demo & #KIR!
With still a few days until its TV premiere, Andi Mack has already won (thanks to online distribution and excellent writing). Andi Mack nails what younger teens have turned to YouTube and other outlets for: realism and relatability. Scripted material works just as well for Gen Z as it always has. If the writing feels realistic, connectable, and relatable, you can build a strong rapport between characters and audience.
Andi Will Dominate (Mini-Review)
From polls and feedback I’ve received through Piper’s Picks, it’s clear that a large majority of kids fell in love with Andi Mack after only seeing the first episode. Terri Minsky brings real life experiences into the story and the characters. Viewers go through the emotions, thoughts and relationships very much how Terri writes them. She’s been able to go a little deeper and just a bit darker than Disney may have allowed during the run of Lizzie McGuire in the first couple of episodes. It just feels real.
There is nothing to derail Andi Mack from dominating the genre for now. Disney and Nick have been resistant to low concept, well written, relatable characters and shows (and, from my personal experience, new ways to cross-over with the Internet) for too long. Both Networks are too large to pivot quickly and give Andi Mack real competition.
It remains to be seen if Disney will take more shows like Andi Mack. With Forever Boys (think vampires boy music group meets high school), Raven’s Home (a That’s So Raven redux), and Right Hand Guy in the works, it seems unlikely. If Andi Mack is only a test case for Disney Channel, its early success should be a call to action for the competition. There are multiple concepts floating around that can help fill the void in low-concept content for the tween demographic.
Thank you so much for reading! Your feedback (or just a quick “hello!”) is absolutely welcome??. I’m @adaemsq on Instagram and Twitter, facebook.com/adamfeinsilver and http://youtube.com/adamesq.
? My world is focused on teen and tween entertainment, technology and attention arbitrage for younger audiences. I produce content mostly in the Gen Z space and help both talent and the Industry build personal (or personalized) brands through content on social networks and other distribution points.
? Since 2007, I’ve produced and edited Piper’s Picks® TV, the first and longest running online entertainment news show (MPAA accredited). It’s family-driven and hosted by my daughter, Piper Reese. Together, we’ve conducted over 800 interviews with celebrities, studio heads and producers in the entertainment space. Piper’s Picks has given us nearly a decade of unparalleled, real insight into Gen Z’s personality and interests through comments, discussions, polls and feedback. We’re currently pitching scripted and non-scripted projects to cable and Networks as well.
?⚖️ I’m also a technology, IP and entertainment attorney. I handle legal representation (and talent representation) primarily on a referral basis.