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June 27, 2018

The Kid Whisperer

To stay in sync with his Disney Channel audience, this exec listens to kids.

Dinah Eng
  • Craig Sjodin/Disney Channel

He may be turning 50 this year, but Adam Bonnett, executive vice-president of original programming for Disney Channels Worldwide, still knows when he's got a kids' hit on his hands.

Bonnett, who oversees series and movies programming for those from age six to 14, says it's not enough to just hold focus groups with kids and tweens. The key to developing successful shows, he says, is getting continuous feedback.

Researchers converse with kids year-round about the network as a whole, and they use social media to glean older kids' opinions about shows. Parents give feedback too, and surveys have yielded surprising results.

"Back in the day, people thought kids are kids and don't really change," Bonnett says. "But that's false. Kids will always deal with bullies and have first crushes, but the nuances of how they deal with things change."

He says Disney's main characters today must reflect their audience, so they are invariably flawed and come from diverse backgrounds. That diversity extends beyond race to include religion, culture and family structure.

In Andi Mack, for example, the lead character is a 13-year-old girl whose older sister turns out to be her mother and whose best friend is gay.

A show's success isn't just measured by ratings, Bonnett points out. Last Halloween, some of the best-selling costumes for kids in the U.S. were characters from Descendants, a newly minted Disney Channel movie franchise.

Bonnett began his career at Nickelodeon as an assistant to Rich Ross, who was vice-president of casting and talent relations. Bonnett spearheaded the development of The Kids' Choice Awards and rose to director of current programming.

When Ross moved to the Disney Channel, he recruited Bonnett to bolster the network's scripted programming. So he developed Lizzie McGuire, Even Stevens, That's So Raven and other comedies that would become classics.

"I look for honesty in characters," Bonnett says. "That Disney magic happens when we can cast that one special kid for a new part. Those kids are the magic that makes a show or film work."

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 5, 2018

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