One way to think about the Radio Disney Music Awards over the last few years has been — wink, wink — as a small world.
After all, the event, which began airing on the Disney Channel in 2013, has historically catered to a younger, more targeted audience than other music awards shows, such as the Grammys, the Billboard Music Awards or MTV’s Video Music Awards.
It’s traditionally scored smaller ratings than its grown-up rivals too. Last year, the Radio Disney Music Awards attracted 2.4 million viewers, according to Nielsen, while the Grammys had nearly 25 million in February.
Yet the size and average age of the RDMAs’ audience could be in for a boost with the 2016 show, set to be recorded Saturday at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles and air Sunday on the Disney Channel. Artists up for awards, which are voted on by Radio Disney listeners, include the mega-popular One Direction and Taylor Swift. More important (as with any awards show), the production will feature performances by Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande and DNCE, none of whom could be described strictly as a kiddie act.
“What we’ve done is broaden the aperture to appeal to the kids as well as the parents in a family,” said Phil Guerini, the Disney executive in charge of the show. His goal, he said, is to make the RDMAs “a general audience program” at a moment when awards shows are a booming business on television.
What we’ve done is broaden the aperture to appeal to the kids as well as the parents in a family.
“It’s thinking differently,” Guerini said. “It’s thinking bigger.”
A kid show watched by adults — is that a thing?
Guerini thinks so, and so does Scooter Braun. Best known as the well-connected manager behind Bieber and Grande (among other successful pop stars), Braun is working as creative executive producer of this year’s show. His involvement is a clear indication of Disney’s effort to reach more mature viewers, be they the parents or the older siblings of kids in the core Radio Disney demographic, whom Guerini pegged as 9- to 12-year-olds.
Put it this way: It wasn’t 18,000 fourth-graders filling Staples Center recently when Bieber performed there wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the face of Marilyn Manson and the words “Bigger Than Satan.”
Braun is “someone who thinks out of the box,” Guerini said, adding that the reason he hired the manager was to challenge his established ideas about what the RDMAs could be.
“Are we bringing in the person who might not necessarily have watched the show [in the past]?” Braun asked. “Yeah, I think we are.” The RDMAs started small, he acknowledged. “But now, production-wise, it’s on the level of any awards show out there.”
Still, both men insisted they aren’t abandoning the foundation of a show Disney calls “music’s biggest event for families.” That bit of branding seems directed in large part at the RDMAs’ closest competitor, Nickelodeon’s Kids’ Choice Awards, which pulled 3.9 million viewers last month.
“What I’ve been trying to explain to my artists is: Forget your current audience. You’re going to get them on Billboard. You’re going to get them on the Grammys. But there is a captive audience of families — young kids and parents — who are watching this show that you’re not even paying attention to,” he said.
Phil McIntyre, who manages DNCE, agreed. “When you put together a well-rounded marketing plan, you want to hit this audience,” he said, even when the act is “not trying to become a group that only speaks to kids.” That’s the case with DNCE, which finds Joe Jonas, a former Disney Channel star, taking on a decidedly sexier, more adult-oriented vibe.
“But it’s music that this audience will probably like,” McIntyre added.
For Guerini, the trick is striking the right balance of tween and twentysomething. All the artists on the show, he noted, will be performing the edited Radio Disney versions of their songs — meaning DNCE’s “Cake by the Ocean” will be free of the numerous F-bombs it contains when you listen to the tune on Spotify.
And though the executive denied this was the reason, the RDMAs’ recorded (as opposed to live) presentation on the Disney Channel ensures the show won’t have any unexpected shocks à la Miley Cyrus’ infamous foam-finger moment on the 2013 VMAs.
Besides, he added, “it wouldn’t really be in anyone’s best interest” to pull such a stunt, given that the artists rely on their music being played on Radio Disney. “There’s a healthy respect for the platform,” Guerini said.
Braun claimed that’s true of his clients. “They’re not morons — they get it,” he said. And he wants them back on the RDMAs next year or the year after, when Guerini hopes the show is even bigger. Assuming, of course, that its expansion hasn’t been thwarted by some other production.
Asked whether the awards-show market is close to saturation — don’t forget the recent iHeartRadio Music Awards or this weekend’s other televised ceremony, the American Country Countdown Awards — Guerini admitted he wasn’t sure.
“But what I can say,” he added, is that Disney knows about making the adjustments necessary to maintain brand supremacy, whether it’s an awards show, an animated movie or a theme park.
“Disneyland isn’t Disneyland,” he said, “just because they opened their gates and it was called Disneyland.”
Radio Disney Music Awards
When: 7 p.m. Sunday (taped)
Where: Disney Channel