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Disney Corners Market for Kids

Fellow Nominee Nickelodeon Influenced Programming Decisions

Locking down three of the five Emmy nominations for this year's children's program has Adam Bonnett, senior VP of original programming for the Disney Channel, feeling cautiously optimistic about bringing home the gold. Ironically, he could owe some of Disney's success to another cable network eyeing the prize in this category -- Nickelodeon.

Previously Mr. Bonnett was director of current programming for Nickelodeon, where he also managed the programming block Nick in the Afternoon. He said his time at Nick was a real learning experience.

"Nickelodeon was my first job, and I studied all the classics when I worked at Nick at Nite," he said. "My first job in television was 'baby-sitting' stars. That was the first thing I had to do at local events. I had to 'baby-sit' the Dick Van Dykes of the world."

After studying the classics and rubbing elbows with their beloved stars, Mr. Bonnett approached his job in programming as a place to re-create the golden age of television. "As a development executive, the things I am developing are the things that I remember making me laugh and touching me emotionally when I was that age," he said.

Mr. Bonnett draws parallels between his nominated shows this year and hit comedies of TV's past. Nominee "'That's So Raven' put us on the map. It was the first sitcom we ever did," he said. "With that show, what we wanted to do was bring back smart, clever physical comedy the way I grew up on it watching 'I Love Lucy' in reruns and then 'Laverne and Shirley.'

"When you break down the brilliance, the genius of Lucille Ball when she's in the chocolate factory, it's not an easy thing to do. We saw that genius in the pilot of 'Raven' and we said, 'You know, this is a girl we can trust to headline a series with physical comedy at its core.' Raven Symone has comedic bones."

With another Disney Channel nominee, "The Suite Life of Zack and Cody," Mr. Bonnett's aim was to create a great ensemble comedy. "What you saw in a show like 'The Mary Tyler Moore Show' was a star-driven vehicle for Mary Tyler Moore, but man, did they surround her with great characters -- go-to comedic characters. Every time they walked on you loved them and you knew what they were going to say and do.

"And that's what I feel we have with this show. Sure, Zack and Cody drive a lot of the stories, but we surrounded them with brilliant comic characters. ... In the same way that 'Raven' was a nod to 'I Love Lucy,' 'Suite Life' was our nod to great workplace comedies like 'Taxi' and 'Mary Tyler Moore.'"

Disney's "Hannah Montana" brings a musical element to kids programming. "We knew we wanted to bring music into our original programming," Mr. Bonnett said. "'Hannah' is a wonderful star-driven vehicle. It is the perfect symbiosis of music and comedy that worked on something like 'The Monkees.'

"We sort of look at 'Hannah' as a superhero show. Boys certainly have their Spider-Man and Superman male character with an alter ego, but finally here was a girl character that lived a whole secret different life. ...

"But we knew that we had to cast a singer. We could not pull this off with a girl and then sort of dub her voice with a different singer. We could not find the girl. We found girls that were sitcom-funny, but they couldn't sing. We could also find good singers, but they couldn't act. So what did we do? We sort of gave up in a way. We made a couple other pilots. And nothing really clicked and we weren't really in love with anything and we said let's go back to this 'Hannah Montana' script. Maybe we can give this another shot.

"Miley [Cyrus] had come in for the first round, but she was too young. But by the time we were really ready to cast it she had grown into the role. It was perfect timing."

Of Disney Channel's three Emmy nominations, Mr. Bonnett said, "Those are pretty good odds. I do feel like a proud father, but like any father you can't ask me to pick favorites."

Other nominees in the children's program category are:

  • "Nick News With Linda Ellerbee" (Nickelodeon). The special "Private Worlds: Kids and Autism," hosted by Ms. Ellerbee, profiled one child with autism, one with Asperger's syndrome and one with savant abilities.

  • "When Parents Are Deployed" (PBS Sesame Workshop). More than half a million children under age 5 are waiting for a parent to return from military service, the most since World War II. Cuba Gooding Jr. hosted this special addressing the challenges military families face with deployment.

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