LOS ANGELES — Kelly Peña, or “the kid whisperer,” as some Hollywood producers call her, was digging through a 12-year-old boy’s dresser drawer here on a recent afternoon. Her undercover mission: to unearth what makes him tick and use the findings to help the Walt Disney Company reassert itself as a cultural force among boys.
Ms. Peña, a Disney researcher with a background in the casino industry, zeroed in on a ratty rock ’n’ roll T-shirt. Black Sabbath?
“Wearing it makes me feel like I’m going to an R-rated movie,” said Dean, a shy redhead whose parents asked that he be identified only by first name.
Ms. Peña and her team of anthropologists have spent 18 months peering inside the heads of incommunicative boys in search of just that kind of psychological nugget. Disney is relying on her insights to create new entertainment for boys 6 to 14, a group that Disney used to own way back in the days of “Davy Crockett” but that has wandered in the age of more girl-friendly Disney fare like “Hannah Montana.”
Children can already see the results of Ms. Peña’s scrutiny on Disney XD, a new cable channel and Web site (disney.go.com/disneyxd). It’s no accident, for instance, that the central character on “Aaron Stone” is a mediocre basketball player. Ms. Peña, 45, told producers that boys identify with protagonists who try hard to grow. “Winning isn’t nearly as important to boys as Hollywood thinks,” she said.
Actors have been instructed to tote their skateboards around with the bottoms facing outward. (Boys in real life carry them that way to display the personalization, Ms. Peña found.) The games portion of the Disney XD Web site now features prominent trophy cases. (It’s less about the level reached in the game and more about sharing small achievements, research showed.)
Fearful of coming off as too manipulative, youth-centric media companies rarely discuss this kind of field research. Disney is so proud of its new “headquarters for boys,” however, that it has made an exception, offering a rare window onto the emotional hooks that are carefully embedded in children’s entertainment. The effort is as outsize as the potential payoff: boys 6 to 14 account for $50 billion in spending worldwide, according to market researchers.
Thus far, Disney’s initiative is limited to the XD channel. But Disney hopes that XD will produce a hit show that can follow the “High School Musical” model from cable to merchandise to live theater to feature film, and perhaps even to Disney World attraction.
With the exception of “Cars,” Disney — home to the “Princesses” merchandising line; the Jonas Brothers; and “Pixie Hollow,” a virtual world built around fairies — has been notably weak on hit entertainment franchises for boys. (“Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Toy Story” are in a type of hibernation, awaiting new big-screen installments.) Disney Channel’s audience is 40 percent male, but girls drive most of the related merchandising sales.
Rivals like Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network have made inroads with boys by serving up rough-edged animated series like “The Fairly Oddparents” and “Star Wars: The Clone Wars.” Nickelodeon, in particular, scoffs at Disney’s recent push.
“We wrote the book on all of this,” said Colleen Fahey Rush, executive vice president for research of MTV Networks, which includes Nickelodeon.
Even so, media companies over all have struggled to figure out the boys’ entertainment market. News Corporation infamously bet big on boys in the late 1990s with its Fox Kids Network and a digital offering, Boyz Channel. Both failed and drew criticism for segregating the sexes (there was also a Girlz Channel) and reinforcing stereotypes.
The guys are trickier to pin down for a host of reasons. They hop more quickly than their female counterparts from sporting activities to television to video games during leisure time. They can also be harder to understand: the cliché that girls are more willing to chitchat about their feelings is often true.
The people on Ms. Peña’s team have anthropology and psychology backgrounds, but she majored in journalism and never saw herself working with children. Indeed, her training in consumer research came from working for a hotel operator of riverboat casinos.
“Children seemed to open up to me,” said Ms. Peña, who does not have any of her own.
Sometimes the research is conducted in groups; sometimes it involves Ms. Peña’s going shopping with a teenage boy and his mother (and perhaps a videographer). The subjects, who are randomly selected by a market research company, are never told that Disney is the one studying them. The children are paid $75.
Walking through Dean’s house in this leafy Los Angeles suburb on the back side of the Hollywood Hills, Ms. Peña looked for unspoken clues about his likes and dislikes.
“What’s on the back of shelves that he hasn’t quite gotten rid of — that will be telling,” she said beforehand. “What’s on his walls? How does he interact with his siblings?”
One big takeaway from the two-hour visit: although Dean was trying to sound grown-up and nonchalant in his answers, he still had a lot of little kid in him. He had dinosaur sheets and stuffed animals at the bottom of his bed.
“I think he’s trying to push a lot of boundaries for the first time,” Ms. Peña said later.
This kind of intensive research has paid dividends for Disney before. Anne Sweeney, president of the Disney ABC Television Group, noted it in her approach to rebuilding Disney Channel a decade ago.
“You have to start with the kids themselves,” she said. “Ratings show what boys are watching today, but they don’t tell you what is missing in the marketplace.”
While Disney XD is aimed at boys and their fathers, it is also intended to include girls. “The days of the Honeycomb Hideout, where girls can’t come in, have long passed,” said Rich Ross, president of Disney Channels Worldwide.
In Ms. Peña’s research boys across markets and cultures described the television aimed at them as “purposeless fun” but expressed a strong desire for a new channel that was “fun with a purpose,” Mr. Ross said. Hollywood has been thinking of them too narrowly — offering all action or all animation — instead of a more nuanced combination, he added. So far results have been mixed.
Disney XD, which took over the struggling Toon Disney channel, has improved its predecessor’s prime-time audience by 27 percent among children 6 to 14, according to Nielsen Media Research. But the bulk of this increase has come from girls. Viewership among boys 6 to 14 is up about 10 percent.
“We’ve seen cultural resonance, and it doesn’t come overnight,” Mr. Ross said.
Which is one reason Ms. Peña is still out interviewing. At Dean’s house her team was quizzing him about what he meant when he used the word “crash.” Ben, a 12-year-old friend who had come over to hang out, responded, “After a long day of doing nothing, we do nothing.”
Growing self-conscious, Ben added, “Am I talking too much?”
Not even close.
April 1, 2009
National Distribution of 200X PBDE tissue concentration in parts per billion lipid weight (where 200X = between 2004 and 2007). Categories low (green dot), Medium (yellow dot), High (red dot) were determined by cluster analysis.
NOAA scientists, in a first-of-its-kind report issued today, state that Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDEs), chemicals commonly used in commercial goods as flame retardants since the 1970s, are found in all United States coastal waters and the Great Lakes, with elevated levels near urban and industrial centers.
The new findings are in contrast to analysis of samples as far back as 1996 that identified PBDEs in only a limited number of sites around the nation.
Based on data from NOAA’s Mussel Watch Program, which has been monitoring coastal water contaminants for 24 years, the nationwide survey found that New York’s Hudson Raritan Estuary had the highest overall concentrations of PBDEs, both in sediments and shellfish. Individual sites with the highest PBDE measurements were found in shellfish taken from Anaheim Bay, Calif., and four sites in the Hudson Raritan Estuary.
Watersheds that include the Southern California Bight, Puget Sound, the central and eastern Gulf of Mexico off the Tampa-St. Petersburg, Fla. coast, and Lake Michigan waters near Chicago and Gary, Ind. also were found to have high PBDE concentrations.
National Distribution of 1996 PBDE tissue concentration in parts per billion lipid weight. Categories low (green dot), Medium (yellow dot), High (red dot) were determined by cluster analysis.
High resolution (Credit: NOAA)
“This is a wake-up call for Americans concerned about the health of our coastal waters and their personal health,” said John H. Dunnigan, NOAA assistant administrator of the National Ocean Service. “Scientific evidence strongly documents that these contaminants impact the food web and action is needed to reduce the threats posed to aquatic resources and human health.”
PBDEs are man-made toxic chemicals used as flame retardants in a wide array of consumer products, including building materials, electronics, furnishings, motor vehicles, plastics, polyurethane foams and textiles since the 1970s. A growing body of research points to evidence that exposure to PBDEs may produce detrimental health effects in animals, including humans. Toxicological studies indicate that liver, thyroid and neurobehavioral development may be impaired by exposure to PBDEs. They are known to pass from mother to infant in breast milk.
Similar in chemical structure to polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, they have raised concerns among scientists and regulators that their impacts on human health will prove comparable. PBDE production has been banned in a number of European and Asian countries. In the U.S., production of most PBDE mixtures has been voluntarily discontinued.
The NOAA Mussel Watch survey found that the highest concentrations of PBDEs in the U.S. coastal zone were measured at industrial and urban locations. Still, the chemicals have been detected in remote places far from major sources, providing evidence of atmospheric transport. Significant sources of PBDEs introduction into the environment include runoff and municipal waste incineration and sewage outflows. Other pathways include leaching from aging consumer products, land application of sewage sludge as bio-solids, industrial discharges and accidental spills.
NOAA and the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project have recently held meetings with representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Geological Survey, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the California State Water Resources Control Board to discuss water quality monitoring of emerging contaminants. NOAA’s research and monitoring information found in this report will be used by relevant resource managers to better understand, assess and address the threats from PBDEs.
NOAA understands and predicts changes in the Earth's environment, from the depths of the ocean to the surface of the sun, and conserves and manages our coastal and marine resources.
More science than Gestalt, this experiment looks unusually apt for our times. The danger in assigning right-left, good-bad is that it allows for no common ground between ideas or hemishperes. Who is offering these labels, the kids in the study or the researchers. Weird science.
One of the most unusual Imax films, rarely seen in its true format, is a morbid combination of propaganda and ingenious engineering. Humans build sand bridged across seas of oil to access fires of turmoil. The sound was shattering in the theater.