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Disney Sticks to Tried-and-True Formula for Kid TV

Actress Maia Mitchell, right, takes a photo with fan Violette Greer as she walks the red carpet for the premiere of her Disney Channel original movie "Teen Beach Movie" Sunday, Aug. 4, 2013, in Sydney. (AP Photo/Rob Griffith)

Actress Maia Mitchell, right, takes a photo with fan Violette Greer as she walks the red carpet for the premiere of her Disney Channel original movie "Teen Beach Movie" Sunday, Aug. 4, 2013, in Sydney. (AP Photo/Rob Griffith)

Everyone’s worried about our kids in 2013 — they think magazines are broken iPads, and their music idols leave monkeys at German airports. But as far as TV programming goes, things aren’t that different than they were three or four decades ago.

Adam Bonnett, a top executive at Disney Channel, knows this from experience. A Silver Spring, Md., native who rose through the ranks and is now in charge of development, Bonnett spends his days trying to tap into the kid mind-set. As a result, he draws from his own upbringing, and he has found there are tenets of tweendom that simply never change.

A prime example: No matter what technological era we’re in, kids will always love summers at the beach and catchy soundtracks. Put the two together and you’ve got Teen Beach Movie, a Disney original musical that premiered last month that’s a throwback to the ’60s-style films.

While helping develop the project, Bonnett, 45, was reminded of the timelessness of the hallmarks of childhood. “It made me think about being that 10-year-old kid and just being surrounded by sun, surf and sand all the time,” said Bonnett, who spent every summer in Ocean City, Md., at his grandparents’ beach house.

It’s a lesson he goes back to frequently while serving as Disney Channels Worldwide executive vice president for original programming. Bonnett, who graduated from New York University, has worked at Disney for more than 15 years. The channel has evolved a good deal during his tenure, but the general themes of what kids enjoy have been the same as they always were.

When Bonnett started at Disney in 1997, the network was home to children’s symphony orchestras and the American Teacher Awards. Bonnett was on the team that helped usher in scripted programming, using some of his favorite shows from childhood as templates.

For example, one of the channel’s most popular sitcoms That’s So Raven, was inspired by Laverne & Shirley, Bonnett said. On that 1970s hit, “you saw female characters be really funny, physically. And Raven-Symone⅜ is a master at physical comedy,” he said.

Meanwhile, themes in The Mary Tyler Moore Show could be compared with Disney’s hit The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, about twin brothers living in a hotel. How so? “Suite Life was our version of a workplace comedy,” he said.

Other big series that Bonnett helped develop include Wizards of Waverly Place, the show that launched Selena Gomez to stardom, as an updated version of Bewitched; and Hannah Montana, the Miley Cyrus phenomenon about a regular kid with a big secret.

Whether yesterday or today, teens deal with many similar issues: coping with families; struggling with friends; shifts in social life; and living in general awkwardness. No matter what age, staffers at Disney must remember what those years were like, especially when plotting for the next big hit.

“Everybody on the original programming team has to tap into their inner 10-year-old. That’s a wonderful time, but it’s also a slightly painful time,” Bonnett said. “You don’t know exactly who you are, and you’re slightly uncomfortable, but you’re also optimistic about the future.”