Once upon a time, according to Disney's upcoming show "Jake and the Never Land Pirates," there was a lonely little boy who wanted to be invited to play with the other children. But he never was. And years later, when the boy became a man, he was better known as Captain Hook.
This simple tale of social ethics is what the preschool set will begin seeing more of from the Disney Channel in the coming months and years. As the company officially retires its longtime, preschool-oriented "Playhouse Disney" and replaces it with "Disney Junior" on Monday, the fresh name will usher in a new emphasis within its preschool programming, one that cares less about teaching rudimentary academics and more about imparting social values.
For the past decade, preschool TV has been laced with basic educational lessons that included helping youngsters identify letters and numbers as on PBS' "Sesame Street" or even teaching simple words from a foreign language, as on Nickelodeon's "Dora the Explorer." The instruction may have comforted parents that the brains of their little Einsteins were not rotting in front of the big bad TV, but according to a six-month Disney study of 2,200 parents, they still wanted something more in their kids' shows.
"Parents are so consumed with 'How do I make sure my kid is going to be prepared for what lies ahead?'" said Nancy Kanter, senior vice president of Playhouse Disney Worldwide. But now "Moms are saying they want their kids to be emotionally strong to really understand how to live in the world. There's a huge place for storytelling to help do that."
In a world where iPads, video games and other gadgets are becoming learning tools — and distractions — for children, and other networks are producing heavily interactive shows for preschoolers, Disney Junior wants to counterprogram, in effect, with old-fashioned storytelling that contains social value messages. Disney executives hope the move will boost the TV channel's audience with the younger demographic, which, despite the company's marketing might and immense popularity, still largely prefers tuning in to Disney's competitors.
The strategy comes at a contentious time in mainstream parenting as the uproar over author Amy Chua's bestselling book "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" demonstrates. In the polarizing memoir, the Yale law professor idolizes achievement and shares her tough-love parenting techniques that included rejecting a poorly made birthday card from her daughter, calling a daughter "garbage," refusing to allow sleepovers and denying a bathroom break to a daughter until a piano composition is mastered.
Though these stern measures are unlikely to inspire much Disney fare, they point up the challenge for Disney as it weaves ethics in a more pronounced way into programming aimed at youngsters. "We don't want to come across as preachy," said Kanter.
The goal of the show is not to moralize, but to prompt discussion between children and caretakers, explained Kanter. For example, one pilot episode shown to a group of parents and children showed a character who found a pair of sparkly blue cowboy boots that didn't belong to him. After initially convincing himself that it was OK to keep them, the character later realizes he should return them.
Kanter said the viewing led one daughter to ask her mother about a recent incident in their life. "The mom said the daughter came back to her and was like, 'Mom, remember that time we found that wallet in the street with money? We should have given it back,'" Kanter said. "The mother was so taken aback, she went back to watch the show with her. It opened this door for communication. Seeing it reflected in character and story — it's a whole different way to instill something in kids."
This is hardly the first time preschool programmers have grappled with infusing shows with values. Indeed, from the outset of PBS' venerable "Sesame Street," the 41-year-old children's program highlighted its own set of values, most notably, a celebration of diversity with a multicultural cast during a time when casting on television was almost entirely white.
"The truth is, Disney is not the first to do pro-social programming, and they won't be the last," said Michael Rich, founder and director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Children's Hospital Boston. "They are just trying to elbow their way into an arena that has really been defined by 'Sesame Street.' And it's not as easy as playing up the brand."
But capitalizing on their powerful brand is something with which Disney has had great success. The Disney Channel has created its share of kid sensations in recent years — "Hannah Montana," "Phineas and Ferb," and "Wizards of Waverly Place."
However, capturing the attention of the pint-sized demographic has proved a challenge. Disney has only one program in the top 10 for preschool programming, its seventh-ranked "Mickey Mouse Clubhouse." Meanwhile, Nickelodeon holds the top five slots, and PBS owns the rest.
So far, competitors don't seemed worried about Disney's new direction.
"It's fairly exhilarating in a lot of ways," said Linda Simensky, vice president of children's programming at PBS. "Competition forces us to try harder. And, frankly, I think there's no channel out there right now that could live without focusing on story and character, so it will be interesting."
Others doubt whether Disney's content will be able to truly distinguish itself.
"I think that all of the characters we have on Nick Jr. have really strong values and are great role models for kids," said Teri Weiss, a vice president of production and development for Nickelodeon Preschool Television. "Teaching them to be good to their friends and considerate of others — it's not unique to a particular brand."
While acknowledging the skill of their competitors, Disney executives believe basic storytelling principles have been sacrificed for the sake of cramming in educational basics. In some cases, they say, preschool programming has become so choppy and disjointed that episodes seem like game shows, with children calling out responses at home instead of being engrossed by a well-spun yarn.
Monday marks the official launch of Disney Junior, which will feature a daily 10-hour block of preschool programming on the Disney Channel. The segment, which will air from 4 a.m. to 2 p.m., will include new shows such as "Jake and the Never Land Pirates" but also retain previous programs such as "Handy Manny" and "Special Agent Oso."
By early 2012, Disney executives expect to expand the new brand to a 24-hour cable channel of its own in recognition of children's viewing habits that now extend far beyond the traditional morning blocks. The plan is for Disney Junior, which is expected to reach 75 million homes, to replace Disney's low-rated SOAPnet channel.
Disney Junior's new series will include "Jake and the Never Land Pirates," which premieres Monday and follows a swashbuckling band of boy outlaws as they try to outsmart Captain Hook. (And even though Hook is a bad guy, Jake invites him to play at the end of the episodes, an important social lesson, Kanter said.) There's also the tentatively titled "Little Princesses," still in development and expected to air when the 24-hour channel launches, which uses Disney princesses to teach gracious behavior; "Tinga Tinga Tales," an animated adventure series inspired by traditional African animal folktales; and, currently in production, "Doc McStuffins," about a young girl who tends to a zoo of stuffed animals and who illustrates the importance of lending a helping hand.
"I think what sometimes is overlooked — at least over the course of the last 10 to 15 years — is the role that storytelling actually has for kids and family in a developmental way, in a growth way, in a learning way," Kanter said. "It's in the Disney DNA to be great storytellers," Kanter said. "That's what the audience expects from us; with some of the other competitors, it's not in their DNA, it's not what's expected. What we're trying to do is play to our strength and I would hope that our competitors would play to theirs."