The Throwback Channel

The interesting thing about the Disney Channel is that its shows and its methods of promotion and production are all throwbacks — sometimes to the ’90s, sometimes to the ’80s, sometimes earlier than that. There is plenty of children’s programming that is more intelligent and contemporary than the Disney Channel stuff, but there’s none more popular, and part of the reason for that is that Disney figured something out (something they haven’t always understood throughout their corporate history): when everybody else is rejecting certain things as too old-fashioned, that’s your opportunity to fill the gap. All you have to do is not be ashamed of being out of date, and you’ll become the only outlet for types of programming that are still popular but otherwise unavailable. So Disney’s shows are a mish-mash of throwbacks to ABC’s TGIF, NBC’s Saturday morning sitcoms, and old Disney teen movies like The Misadventures of Merlin Jones, while their star-making strategy is right out of the old Hollywood studio system.

More than that, it’s been pointed out that Disney shows re-use all kinds of tropes that haven’t been in wide use for over a decade, from the backdoor spinoff pilot starring previously-unknown characters, to the desperation re-tool accomplished by taking the main cast to a new set (The Suite Life of Zack and Cody became The Suite Life On Deck). And they recently returned once again to that old staple of kids’ programming blocks, from back when networks had kids’ programming blocks, the multi-show, one-night crossover (the dates here are for the airing of these episodes on the Family Channel):

Toronto, July 6, 2009 Astral Media’s Family Channel presents Wizards on Deck with Hannah Montana, the crossover event of summer. The 90-minute telecast stars the casts of Disney Channel’s Hannah Montana, Wizards of Waverly Place and The Suite Life on Deck including stars Miley Cyrus, Emily Osment, Selena Gomez, David Henrie, Jake T. Austin, Jennifer Stone, Dylan Sprouse, Cole Sprouse, Brenda Song and Debby Ryan. The crossover fun kicks off Friday, July 24 beginning at 7:30 p.m. ET/PT. Wizards on Deck with Hannah Montana will be available on Family OnDemand beginning Tuesday, July 21 and can be sampled at Family.ca immediately following its July 24 premiere on Family Channel.

Friday, July 24 at 7:30 p.m. ET/PT

Cast-Away (To Another Show)
Justin is excited to meet London Tipton when he wins the essay contest prize, a cruise on the SS Tipton. Alex and Max get to go aboard too, where Alex bonds with new BFF Bailey, but soon gets in hot water when she uses magic to bring Harper aboard. Meanwhile, Max and Zack compete in a series of outrageous challenges.

Friday, July 24 at 8 p.m. ET/PT

Hannah Montana boards the SS Tipton on her way to a concert performance in Honolulu. To impress Bailey, Cody enlists Woody to help him get tickets. Meanwhile, the Russos use a little magic to spice up their vacation – Alex pulls a prank on Justin, for which Mr. Moseby blames Zack, while Max introduces London to a magical suitcase.

Friday, July 24 at 8:30 p.m. ET/PT

Super(stitious) Girl
While on the ship deck, Miley loses the charm ankle bracelet that her mother gave her and, when things start to go wrong, she is sure it’s because she lost her lucky charm. Meanwhile, Cody tells Bailey that he has a close friendship with Hannah and promises great seats to her concert.

Disney has done this before, and networks used to do it (comic books did it even more often): you have several shows, not normally occupying the same “universe” — unlike, say, Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice or Angel and Buffy — do a multi-episode crossover. The episodes air as a single programming block, but each show “owns” one half-hour of the block, and the footage is re-edited into self-contained half-hour episodes of the individual shows. Again, this works, because viewers — and not just young viewers — enjoy seeing characters from different shows meeting each other (as well as the implication that they all really do exist in the same universe). Like much else associated with the Disney Channel, it’s ancient, and it’s still successful.