Behind the scenes of the Disney Channel

By REBECCA BARRY


The 75-year-old reclining on the sofa welcomes us with a wide grin as we enter the foyer of Sydney's Disney Channel studios. Behind the stuffed Mickey Mouse toy, snapshots of the brand's new stars are splashed across the walls, the youthful Aussie presenters of the 24-hour children's channel. Garish colours hit you straight away, and it's not long before you discover happiness must be part of the job description if you want to work here.

Enter Scott Cain, a keen skate-boarder, young dad and host of the channel's weekday morning cartoon show, AMTV. Last year the 22-year-old won Australian reality TV series Popstars, sold 80,000 CDs, and was awarded an ARIA for his number one debut single. This year he gets to close his show with a karaoke session that beams out to thousands of five to nine-year-olds.

"I don't get worried that people don't take me seriously because the kind of people I'm entertaining, I don't want to take me seriously," he says, sitting across the board room table in a pair of bright, patterned pyjamas.

Down the corridor in office spaces dotted sparingly with stuffed toy characters, a young woman appears to be slacking off as she sits in front of a screen watching a cartoon and chuckling to herself.

In fact she's the channel's censor, checking each of the programmes before they go to air to see they fit Disney's unwritten code of ethics, editing out anything remotely violent or offensive, keeping in mind it's not just kids watching the shows but their parents, too. After all, these are not the Disney shows most parents would have watched in their youth. In these post-Finding Nemo days, the kids are into Lizzie McGuire, Kim Possible, Gummi Bears.

Downstairs in the main studio, which is manned by equally upbeat technical people who manoeuvre their equipment around stuffed monsters and Christmas decorations, we meet quite possibly the most energetic woman in Australia.

"Wasssuup, Nooo Zeeealaaand!" hoots 24-year-old Amber Virtue, host of Studio D, which targets the after-school tween market (six to 14-year-olds.) "I find it hard to not be energetic," she says. "I'm pretty much like this all the time and my mum's like, 'Ok, Amber, we'll just bring the energy level down a little."'

Her more subdued co-host, 23-year-old Dan Mills — who is apparently rather popular with the mums — explains, "When you sit in a studio like this, you've got the colour, the people, the vibe, it's hard to ignore and you just get taken away."

The fashionably dressed pair present a wacky, non-stop couple of hours of cartoons and What Now?-style activities that seem designed to exhaust viewers before bed.

"We're not treating the kids as kids," says Amber. "We're treating them as equals so it is like talking to your friend. How I talk to Dan in private is how I would talk to him on the show. So you don't really flick a switch from patronising them as kids and then talking to adults. But I might not be so 'HI! HOW ARE YOU!' on the street."

Half an hour by car but another world away is the studio where Playhouse Disney — which also airs in parts of Asia — is filmed. Host Monica Trapaga insists not anyone could do her job, as there are so many things to consider when entertaining pre-schoolers. A team of advisers works to ensure the programme is fun, educational and a pillar of political correctness. Tummies must never be shown because they are "offensive". The crew had to reshoot a scene where they played a make-believe fishing game after they were informed it was against protocol in parts of Asia to show the soles of the feet.

"We've created this world that's like the kids' living room so the parents feel good because they know we're not going to do anything that's not kosher for their kids to do. Kids have a lot more trust at this age. They're much more willing to go on a journey with you. Naturally they'll get a tissue box and stick their feet in it."

"It's amazing," agrees co-host Kaeng Chan. "Last season I was taken to a daycare centre and I met this beautiful girl and she was showing me around, dragging me here, dragging me there, plonking me down, sitting on my lap. The trust is so beautiful."

Behind the studio is a labyrinth of passageways that lead to odd rooms. There's the "art department", a claustrophobic workshop where creative minds transform egg cartons into frogs, tissue boxes into chickens, which the hosts show their viewers how to make. All of the materials used to craft these creatures must be accessible to kids — the Disney staff know where to take their old toilet rolls and ice cream containers when they've finished with them.

"We had Halloween this year," says Monica, "and some child's mum had made him a complete foil suit covered in icecream containers and put chopsticks in it and the kid's walking down the road like a piece of garlic bread. I was so excited. I thought, This is why we do this show."

Delve deeper into the building, where the light wanes and children would probably not want to venture, a recording studio pipes scarily cheery music. Monica and Kaeng invite us inside and break into an impromptu sing-along, complete with choreographed actions. Remembering all the words and dances doesn't always come easily when you have to learn about 200 songs a year but they pull it off with boundless enthusiasm, the kind that should be bottled and sold because, after a day of being exposed to it, I am lacking any whatsoever. The composer's antidote sounds like a very good one: come home and play very loud, very heavy metal.

* The Disney Channel will screen on Sky Digital, Channel 40, from 6.30pm December 24.

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