Rich Ross had a Mouse ear for 'tween' talent

Fordham Law Alumnus Rich Ross in the Los Angeles Times, June 21, 2009

As Disney Channel president , Rich Ross led TV's pursuit of the 'tween' audience, creating wildly popular personalities as well as programs that have muscled their way into mainstream culture.
By Dawn C. Chmielewski

June 21, 2009

As the Jonas Brothers took the stage at the Dallas Convention Center on Nov. 18, 2006, the group had little to sing about.

The band's advocate at Columbia Records had left and the label was dropping them. Few gigs loomed on the horizon. But the crowd at the Radio Disney 10th anniversary concert was oblivious to the Jonases' travails. As the group sang "Year 3000," a hit on the station, the audience responded with shrieking enthusiasm.

The reaction caught the attention of Disney Channel President Rich Ross, who had been listening to the performance backstage.

"He ran up to me and said, 'I've never seen anything like this in my life. I want you to know they could be so big,' " recalled Kevin Jonas Sr., the boys' father and manager. "To this day, I look at that moment as the turning point for the Jonas Brothers."

The Jonases, who now boast two platinum albums, their own Disney Channel show, "Jonas," and a 3-D concert movie, are among the youthful stars who owe their big break to Ross, the man who could be called the father of "Tween TV."

Since his arrival as senior vice president of programming in 1996, Ross has transformed Disney Channel from a cable television backwater that ran old films and educational fare into a reliable profit engine for the Walt Disney Co.

But more than that, he led TV's pursuit of the 9-to-14-year-old "tween" audience, creating wildly popular personalities and shows that not only dominate the age group's attention but have muscled their way into mainstream culture: Hilary Duff as "Lizzie McGuire," Miley Cyrus as "Hannah Montana," the "High School Musical" movies and now the Jonas Brothers.

Ross targeted a void in children's television -- the yawning gap between Tigger, Pooh and the Disney princesses, and innuendo-laced prime-time shows. Before Ross' efforts at Disney Channel, no network courted the age group, which influences roughly $43 billion in spending annually.

"They existed. They weren't programmed to," Ross said. "They were either forced to slum off younger stuff or watch what their parents thought was inappropriate." In creating programming for those viewers, Ross helped launch the careers of many of today's most celebrated figures in young Hollywood, including Shia LaBeouf, Zac Efron and Cyrus. He hopes two rising Disney Channel stars, Demi Lovato and Selena Gomez, will succeed Cyrus as tween phenoms.

"In the 20 years I have known Rich, he has always been recognized for his ability to spot talent," said Kevin Huvane, managing partner at Creative Artists Agency, who represents Cyrus. "Rich knows intuitively what is relevant to the marketplace and is tremendously savvy at building programming that resonates with audiences. In doing so, he has helped launch a generation of stars."

The actors and their parents describe him as remarkably approachable and concerned, and his personal touch was on display at the February film premiere of "Jonas Brothers: The 3D Concert Experience." He greeted by name not only proteges such as "Hannah Montana" costar Emily Osment and Madison Pettis, who appeared opposite Dwayne Johnson in Disney's movie "The Game Plan," but also the Jonases' head of security and a Disney photographer.

As the band's black SUV pulled up to the El Capitan Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard, Ross bristled with boyish enthusiasm. "About to be the bedlam," he predicted, flashing a broad smile as the crowd erupted in screams.

Ross grew up in the 1960s in Eastchester, N.Y., at a time when most families had a single television set in the den and parents fretted about their children's exposure to the "idiot box." At the age of 9, he requested what then was considered taboo: a television for his room. He still remembers meeting his father's train one night and seeing him carrying a large TV box. When Ross ripped it open, he discovered not a television, but a puppy.

"I looked at it and said, 'This is a dog. Where's the TV?' " Ross said. "I was sort of inconsolable. So, within a couple of months, they got me the TV."

Each night, Ross would do his homework watching shows such as "Mayberry R.F.D." and fall asleep hearing "The Merv Griffin Show" echoing through the ventilation system from the den. He grew to share his father Marty's love of comedy and a curiosity about the New York end of the industry. While other kids at summer camp were reading Sports Illustrated, he received Daily Variety.

Merv Griffin would end up giving Ross his big break in television -- albeit indirectly. The entertainer's bookkeeper was a friend of Ross' mother, Harriet, and she arranged an interview for the 19-year-old Ross with Griffin's representative, the William Morris Agency in New York, where he was hired to work in the mail room.

After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania and Fordham University Law School, Ross took a job in the talent department at Nickelodeon. Those early experiences -- especially with the young actors he cast in such live-action Nickelodeon series as "Hey Dude" and "Clarissa Explains It All" -- would shape his later work at Disney.

The norm for casting was to evaluate talent solely on the child's audition. "I broke some rules, like meeting the parents, because to me it mattered," Ross said. "If you understand who the families are, you understand what they need and they want. Then you're more apt to get it right and be able to support them."

Indeed, Disney Channel hosts what it calls a "family dinner" at the launch of every new series. The parents laud Ross and Disney Channel Entertainment President Gary Marsh for cultivating an environment where they feel comfortable enough to call or e-mail with questions or concerns.

"From Day 1 they take a hands-on approach in bringing you into the family," said Dianna De La Garza, the former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader whose daughter, Lovato, stars in the new Disney Channel series "Sonny With a Chance," now its highest-rated series.

The 47-year-oldRoss and his partner of more than 20 years, Adam Sanderson, live in the Hollywood Hills and have no children of their own. However, he maintains a close relationship with the 14- and 10-year-old daughters of his former roommate and best friend from Fordham Law, who serve as an informal focus group. He described Alexis and Dominique Teixeira as "truth meters."

Dominique Teixeira recently screened "Princess Protection Program," a new Disney Channel movie starring Gomez and Lovato that premieres Friday, at her birthday party. "My friends were like, 'Oh my God, that was one of the best movies I've ever seen,' " she said.

There were no marquee stars like Cyrus or the Jonases when Disney/ABC Television Group President Anne Sweeney persuaded Ross to join her at Disney Channel. "He was one of my first, and most important, hires when I got to Disney Channel," said Sweeney, who had worked with him at Nickelodeon and later while launching FX Networks. "I knew he'd be critical to our ability to transform the channel into a global force."

Disney Channel's principal rival, Nickelodeon, had emphasized animation in the mid-'90s to compete with the Cartoon Network. Ross responded by creating live-action programs that featured teen protagonists who reflected the audience the network hoped to capture.

"While Nick was batting away one competitor, Disney started to get focused and started to move with consistency against another part of what had been Nick's universe: girl-driven sitcoms," said Herb Scannell, former Nickelodeon Networks president. "I give all of them a lot of credit."

By 2001, Disney had launched "Lizzie McGuire," about a 13-year-old middle-schooler who expressed her thoughts through a cartoon alter ego. The series was the network's breakthrough. That year, Disney Channel overtook Nickelodeon as the top prime-time network among children ages 9 to 14. The series, starring Duff, would become a template for future Disney Channel franchises to reach beyond television: The Lizzie McGuire soundtracks sold millions, setting the stage for Cyrus.

Music -- specifically Disney's revival of the break-into-song Broadway-style musical with its sleeper 2006 hit "High School Musical" -- catapulted Disney Channel into the cultural zeitgeist. An estimated 290 million viewers worldwide watched love bloom between the high-school basketball star and the brain.

"I have to tell you that making musical theater cool for kids has been a highlight of my career," Ross told Fordham Law School graduates in a 2008 commencement speech.

He no longer creates the shows that serve as star vehicles -- that responsibility falls to his creative partner, Marsh. As Ross' responsibilities include 100 channels worldwide, Judy Taylor runs casting, but he retains the final say on the selection of all lead characters.

It is still unclear whether the teen stars Ross has established will go on to long-term Hollywood success. Though LaBeouf ("Even Stevens," "Holes") has appeared in several hit movies without the Disney brand, Duff hasn't had a breakout role post-Lizzie McGuire. She split with Disney in 2003, after talks to move "Lizzie" to high school -- and the ABC network -- broke down over money. Duff did not respond to e-mailed questions.

Disney Channel maintains a prime-time edge over Nickelodeon. The network has had the occasional misfire, such as "Naturally, Sadie," about a 14-year-old aspiring naturalist. And Nickelodeon still has a larger audience than Disney throughout the day, according to the latest Nielsen ratings.

Nickelodeon has tried to steal some of Disney Channel's thunder: "iCarly," about a teen girl who hosts her own Web show, now draws an average of 2.7 million viewers, outperforming "Hannah Montana," according to Nielsen.

As the two networks compete for the affections of tween girls, Ross has set his sights on a new and notoriously elusive audience: tween boys. He renamed Toon Disney as Disney XD, which launched in February with the action-adventure show "Aaron Stone," in which a video-game virtuoso leads a double life as a crime fighter. It also added "Zeke and Luther," in which two best friends try to become world-famous skateboarders. He believes that if Disney can fill the vessel with the right content, the boys will get on board.

"Everybody says they're just going to play games, and certain age groups are going to go on MySpace, and oh, they have school and their homework," said Ross of the skeptics.

"Is it going to be like Disney Channel a week later? Disney Channel is 12 years in the making. It took seven years before we got 'Lizzie.' It was nine years for 'High School Musical.' We're the overnight 12-year sensation."