Do You Know Where Your Kids Are? Disney’s Rich Ross Probably Does

Rich Ross is a morning person. This may be an asset in many professions, but Ross was starting out in the entertainment business — a field that’s never been known for early risers. So back in 1986, when he showed up for his first day as a short-term freelancer at a fledgling cable network called Nickelodeon, he walked down a long, dark hallway where just one office light was on. As it happened, the woman sitting in that office, eating an oversized breakfast muffin, invited the rookie to sit down and join her. And for most of the 22-plus years since, she’s been a mentor and boss as Ross, now the president of Disney Channels Worldwide, rose through the new world of cable television and ushered in a revolution in programming aimed at young viewers. His breakfast partner, Ann Sweeney, now runs the conglomerate’s television group.

Ross told the story recently during a Wharton Leadership Lecture that stressed the career-making power of serendipity, personal connections and team-building. “The people around you are the people most able to help you with your career because they know you best,” he said. “People close to you, people who might be in this room, are the ones who can help.”

As president of Disney Channels Worldwide, Ross,whose office is in Burbank, Calif.,leads the corporation’s burgeoning universe of kids programming — 94 channels available in 163 countries and 32 languages. He also has responsibility for Disney’s 42 owned-and-operated radio stations.Even in a dour economy, Ross has been in the midst of launching a new channel and web site, Disney XD, aimed at six- to 14-year-old boys.

How does Disney manage in a world of illegal downloading and competition from free-of-charge YouTube sensations? Ross said it’s as simple as making good shows. Early in his tenure, he pushed for creating original movies and content aimed at the “tween” demographic. “Tweens” — short for between — are the niche demographic betweenchildhood and adolescence that was first identified by the network. It’s a big business market today, which means Disney is already competing with a number of other players.

“Disney had been making movies, but they were movies based on Dickens novels,” said Ross. “No offense to my English major, but I don’t think kids were running out for ‘Old Curiosity Shop.'” He led the development of such popular-culture touchstones as the “Hannah Montana” franchise, “High School Musical” and “‘tween” music sensations the Jonas Brothers.

Any Platform Will Do

At a time when traditional media companies, from newspapers to local broadcasters, are faltering, Ross said Disney has prospered by emphasizing quality content while not being picky about what platform could be used to display that content: “We can’t leave our heads in the sand…. People are getting [entertainment] in different ways. My boss made one of the first deals with iTunes for content. And people [said], ‘Wow, are you crazy, what are you thinking?’ But if we can make things available on something that people love, which clearly they do, and set a price point that makes sense, then that’s a good business model.”

Ross considers himself “very lucky to work for a company that puts content first, because that’s where everyone comes. People are not buying diluted versions. They want the real thing. And we’re lucky that we can do it…. We’ve been given a mandate by our company: Eyes open. We’re launching Disney XD in the middle of God-knows-what in our industry, and I’ve never gotten more support” from top executives.

In betting on content at a time when many in the media are settling for aggregation, Ross also relies on expertise about how young people navigate the dizzying array of devices for media consumption. “The multiplicity of options is astounding,” he said. “What you often find is girls and boys differing. You walk into a girl’s bedroom, she will have the computer open, she’s IM-ing, the schoolbook is open, a magazine’s on the bed, phones, the whole shebang. And [if] you turn to the girl and ask her about one of the interfaces, she’ll tell you what’s on it. Girls are very good at multitasking.” As it happens, Disney’s programming has skewed towards girls. “Boys are very linear,” Ross said, noting that they tend to focus on one thing at a time — games, chats, TV or anything else. Disney XD will take advantage of some of these insights to craft an audience around boys in the tween demographic.

Ross’s path to Disney was an unlikely one, shaped by serendipity and mentoring. As a student at the University of Pennsylvania, he worked summers at the William Morris talent agency, thanks to some family connections to people in the entertainment field. His mother, for example, had gone to summer camp with a woman who became Merv Griffin’s bookkeeper. After earning his BA in the bleak job environment of 1983, Ross talked his way off the waiting list at Fordham Law School and earned his law degree in 1986 — even though he wasn’t particularly interested in being a lawyer. Instead, he wound up working his way out of the William Morris mailroom with a skill he had used to earn extra money in college: typing.

An array of jobs followed: That freelance assignment with Nickelodeon turned into a seven-year run. “I started in the talent department,” Ross said. “I did celebrity booking. It was 20 years ago. I got Madonna, and it was like, how long is she going to last?” Further promotions turned him into a casting director — something he had never done before but which became a field of expertise. Ross said he would ask to meet the young actors’ parents in an effort to gain critical insight into their kids. He eventually led the network’s new European channels as a London-based vice president.

Watching Murdoch

Ross then followed mentor Sweeney to News Corporation’s new FX channel, working for Rupert Murdoch, a man Ross described as a visionary. He occasionally got a ringside seat to observe the media baron in action. At one meeting, he recalled, Murdoch leaned over to an aide and asked him to look into the possibility of structuring a complex deal to acquire rights to show the Olympics in Asia on what was then his new Star TV satellite network. The aide returned with an answer 20 minutes later. “And it dawned on me — there was no Google at the time — that the guy had actually gone and called [International Olympic Committee chairman] Juan Antonio Samaranch and gotten an answer.”

After three years at FX, Ross followed Sweeney to Disney, which had been an uninspiring television also-ran. Upon his arrival, he said, Sweeney told him that he had six weeks to create “a programming solution for this network. I looked around and that’s where we came up with the tween strategy.” Since then, his bailiwick has steadily expanded, encompassing the radio stations, CDs, toys and other gear. Last month, a slew of Ross’s Disney talent performed for the first family at a kids’ inaugural concert in Washington.

Though he spoke passionately about mentoring, Ross said the key to assembling a good team involves a certain contradiction: “One is find people you like. Two is do not find people just like you…. You can’t hire carbon copies of yourself. People talk about diversity in front of the camera. It’s an imperative with me to have diversity behind the camera. And not just in skin tone or gender or whatever. It’s in every way.”

Ross predicted that despite the recession, demand for television content will stay strong. “Though we live in challenging times, now more than ever, kids and their families still need connections,” he said. Professionally, it also helps to work at the most famous name in entertainment, one whose modern incarnation is a globalized entertainment firm that can be both comprehensive and nimble. “What I ask people is, ‘Do you really want to bet against us?'”

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