Like many people, Disney Channel was a big part of my childhood. It was far from my favorite channel, but I have fond memories of watching Disney during weekends and after school. It made for good, mindless-T.V. It was something I could put on and watch without thinking; which I admittedly wasn’t doing much of in elementary school. I have many memories of watching all the popular shows during my childhood: Jessie; Good Luck Charlie; popular animated shows, such as Gravity Falls; Phineas, and Ferb. I still watch reruns of the latter two.
         Looking back now, the live-action sitcoms were all basically the same, with only surface-level differences. The characters were all similar and shallow, with no extreme differences to make them stand out. It was the same with the plots. While they all had slightly different gimmicks to differentiate themselves, when it came down to it, the shows were all practically the same. I’m sure if I looked back far enough in the channel’s four-decade history, I would see just how different and creative Disney Channel shows once were, and how they could be written now. Why don’t we do that? Why don’t we look back on the channel’s history, and see how it’s evolved? Or devolved, depending on how you look at it.
         Disney Channel was launched on April 18th, 1983, under the name The Disney Channel. It was made with the idea of being a family-oriented cable channel, having shows targeted towards children and teens in the morning, and adult shows during the night. The first show to premiere on the network was Good Morning, Mickey!, a series of short, animated films centering around the titular Mickey Mouse and the other characters in his world.
         As mentioned, when the channel was first launched, its title was The Disney Channel. It retained this brand from the year it was launched, until April 6th, 1997, when it was rebranded to the name it is now known by, Disney Channel. Looking at the shows airing during this period, a lot of them seem to either be series of animated shorts, centering around popular characters going back to Walt. Disney Company’s founding. Examples include Good Morning, Mickey!, or Donald Duck Presents. The genre the shows seem to fall under would be reality and game shows, such as You and Me, Kid, a show about parents and their toddlers doing learning activities together, and Contraption, a game show. While some shows in these veins may still exist, both genres have fallen off in popularity, as I can’t think of any shows like these in recent years.
         From April 6th, 1997 onwards, many popular shows that Disney Channel is known for premiered. Lizzie Mcguire, That’s So Raven and Hannah Montana are some names that come to mind. Like shows nowadays, a lot of shows from this time are live-action sitcoms, centering around teens. Lizzie McGuire is centered around the titular Lizzie McGuire, and her and her friends surviving middle school. That’s So Raven, while extremely similar, was also extremely different, centering on a high school girl, who also happened to have a psychic power to see into the future.
         Nowadays, Disney Channel is most known for its live-action sitcoms. And the early 2000s seemed to be when they gained a surge of popularity, with many classics premiering. While these shows were extremely similar to shows currently on, I will give them credit and say they had many unique gimmicks to make them different from the typical slice-of-life sitcoms that seem to saturate the channel. That’s so Raven had a supernatural element to it, having the main character able to see into the future. Lizzie McGuire was more akin to something like the book series Diary of a Wimpy Kid, being that they both had main characters in middle school who narrated their respective series, and both had very prideful and sarcastic personalities. So while I think they weren’t extremely different from the shows nowadays, I do think they did a much better job of standing out and being different.
         According to the website mass001.wordpress.com, the years Disney Channel was most popular were from 2010 to 2015. Many popular shows, all of which I remember watching episodes of at various points in my childhood, premiered. Some examples include Austin and Ally, the previously mentioned Jessie and Good Luck Charlie, Wizards of Waverly Place, and the Suite Life of Zack and Cody. As I have mentioned previously, I feel all the shows I remember watching weren’t that different or special and had very shallow gimmicks and differences to differentiate. I still feel this way. I mean sure, they have different settings, and different characters, but are they really that different?
         Each show has some variation of the dumb character. Dez from Austin and Ally, Luke from Jessie, the oldest child in Good Luck Charlie, all of these characters could fall under the dumb character category. Or what about the smart character? That also seems to be a common type. You’ve got Ravi from Jessie, Cody from the Suite Life, or Justin from Wizards of Waverly Place. Don’t all these characters fall under the same archetypes? Sure, they’re all different people. But when you look at them hard enough, aren’t they all written the same? Don’t their personalities just seem too similar? There is nothing wrong with using archetypes, as long as they’re written to be as different or original as possible. But does Disney Channel do a good job of it? I would think not.
Or what about the plots of these shows? How many episodes are there of the kid characters throwing some sort of party and having to clean up before the parental characters get back? Or episodes where characters make up some sort of lie to impress a friend or their love interest? To me, all the episodes of these shows feel the same, and I can’t find anything truly original about them.
         I will give the channel credit, and say that in more recent years, they seem to have been trying new things. In 2017, Andi Mack, a more dramatic series about a girl finding out her adult-older sister is her mom premiered. I remember watching it for a little bit after it premiered. It was very different from most Disney Channel series. Its episodes had very similar storylines to the basic, live-action sitcoms of the past, but it had a way more dramatic undertone and had episodes dealing with a lot more serious issues than its predecessors. From a character realizing his sexuality, from talking about teen pregnancy to anxiety issues, it tackled a lot of issues most of those other shows wouldn’t dare touch.
         Another “different” show I remember watching would be the even more recent, Secret of Sulphur Springs. A science-fiction, time-travel mystery series about two kids trying to discover the truth behind a girl’s mysterious disappearance, and the history behind the old hotel one of the characters is staying at with his family. Unlike Andi Mack, this show didn’t fall under any sitcom tropes in the slightest. In fact, not only that, but it wasn’t an episodic series at all. It was a serialized story, with each episode continuing from the last, as the kids slowly discovered the truth behind what was going on.
         I’ll be honest, I never finished Andi Mack or Sulphur Springs. I tend to fall off with live-action shows. Still, I enjoyed both of these when I was committed to them. Not only were their stories different from what we had seen, but they also were filmed differently, being filmed to look more like a Disney Channel original movie, rather than the typical series. They were a nice change, and I appreciate that the channel seems to be trying new things.
So yeah, Disney Channel. A channel I used to watch quite a bit but now don’t care much for. They started with animated and game shows and went on to live-action sitcoms, which they kept up for a long time, making them more, and more trophy and unoriginal, and now they seem to be diversifying, willing to try new things. If they keep that up, they could become as popular as they once were.