Taking the Mickey
For decades it's been as American as apple pie, but now Disney is adding some local flavour to its approach. Joanna Hunkin finds out how the Disney Channel is adapting to Kiwi kids' tastes
As Tuis sing out from the dense bush, a group of teenagers are mucking around with some milk crates, trying to build a tower.
"Chuck us another one, bro," calls one of the boys atop the towering crate stack.
Behind them, flattened pongas line a muddy ravine after a recent flash flood. Beside them, fat dairy cows moo lazily as they squelch around their paddock.
It's a quintessentially New Zealand scene. Or as these kids might say – it's Kiwi as, bro. And certainly a far cry from the plastic mouse ears and fantasy castles most of us associate with Disney.
Yet here we are, in the Hunua Ranges, on the set of Disney Channel's latest production; a reality series spin-off of the Jonas Brothers' film Camp Rock.
Hosted by former C4 presenter Jane Yee, the series features two teams of performing arts students – 10 Kiwis and 10 Aussies – battling it out in a transtasman challenge.
Set to screen on Disney Channel early next year, Camp Rock the Tasman will comprise five half-hour episodes and marks the network's first long-form local production. It's part of a growing commitment by the channel to produce more local Australian and New Zealand content.
While Camp Rock the Tasman has seen the network move into long-form programming, the majority of their efforts have come in the form of short, five-minute episodal series, known as interstitials.
In the past two years Disney has developed five interstitial formats, including the comedy series As the Bell Rings, filmed in ABC's Elsternwick Studios in Melbourne.
Set in the corridors of a local high school, the comedy series revolves around 10 young teens – including one New Zealand character – and plays in between regular programming on both Disney Channel Australia and New Zealand.
Executive producer Graham Cousens is at the forefront of the movement, hired in 2006 as the creative director for the channel.
"My job is to connect to the local kids," he explains. "That's a huge priority for Disney, to have a local presence wherever they are and to engage with the local audience."
Disney has long been synonymous with happy childhood memories, but for most of us, the brand is distinctly American. With Disney Channel now screening 24/7 in countries around the world, the network realised it needed to diversify its content and reflect its global viewers.
In New Zealand, Disney Channel began screening in late 2003 as part of the Sky Digital network. But the closest it came to local content was an Australian hosted magazine-style show, called Studio Disney.
Though the format was popular, Disney soon began searching for a better way to reflect local culture and feature local talent.
General manager Melissa Dixon explains: "Internationally, all the Disney channels used to have a live daily magazine format show. A conscious decision was made to move to a more localised form of production that was repeatable and interactive in a different way."
The result was five interstitial series; As the Bell Rings, Undercover Coach, What a Life!, My High School Musical and Hidden Talents.
Two of the series – Undercover Coach and What a Life! – feature episodes filmed in New Zealand and As the Bell Rings recently wrote a New Zealand character into the script, played by Kiwi actress Amelia Reynolds.
Both Cousens and Dixon believe the comedy aspect of the series is key to reflecting our local culture.
"Comedy is a very local thing," says Dixon. "Because of our very dry sense of humour in this part of the world, some of the things that might have worked in a US script or a UK script, don't really relate to here."
Cousens adds: "The issues these kids are facing are pretty much universal. But the dialogue and all the subtleties of language are Australian and New Zealand. We do really try and use our own vernacular."
But while Disney is happy to embrace different accents and language, all productions must still adhere to the network's universal "brand promises".
"Believe in yourself, follow your dream, celebrate your family … quite honestly, it's drilled into us," laughs Cousens. "There are principles we try to keep in mind with all our storylines. We don't go into dark places."
Though the Australian side of the operation is required to fulfil a local content quota, as set by the Government, Dixon says the channel is committed to producing more than the bare minimum. And here in New Zealand, where there are no quotas, the network aims to film between 30 to 40 per cent of their short-form programmes in New Zealand.
New Zealand on Air CEO Jane Wrightson commends the channel for their efforts, which receives no funding from her organisation.
"It's a great thing when foreign channels make an effort to include local content. Let's face it – they don't have to," she says.
"Local content for kids is important because children need ongoing reinforcement that they are New Zealanders. That's part of how you build pride and self-esteem."