Exclusive: Disney's Troubling Internal Research on the Jonas Brothers
Just two years ago, the Jonas Brothers were being compared to the Beatles. They had a platinum album. They were clean-cut and well-scrubbed (and they wore purity rings), but they were also respected for their catchy pop music that drove young girls to shrieking sessions.
My things have changed for the tweeny boppers. In the past year, they’ve struck out with album sales, and starred in both a ratings-challenged TV show and a failed 3-D concert movie.
“If you went to school with a JB backpack, other people might think you’re dorky,” one young girl told Disney’s marketing team.
Disney’s focus-group research, exclusively obtained by The Daily Beast, might explain why: According to the interviews, the Jonas Brothers are fast losing the very fanbase that propelled them to the heights of stardom. These studies show that the same young girls that just a few years ago couldn’t get enough of the rosy cheeks and luscious locks of Kevin, Joe, and Nick, are growing up and leaving their crushes behind.
Although very young girls, aged 8 and 9, are still smitten by the once Christian-rock band that Disney adopted and turned into a global phenomenon, 9 and 10 year olds are far more mixed. According to the reports, “All said they had friends who were ‘obsessed’ with the JBs. Some would be embarrassed to talk about the JBs with other friends.”
Twelve- and 13 year-olds were harsher, and most said they were less interested in the Jonas Brothers than they’d been six months earlier.
“The Jonas Brothers aren’t ‘in’ as much anymore,” one testee told Disney.
Said another: “I became less of a fan when Twilight came out, and now I’m more into Taylor Lautner.”
Yet another laid in: “If you went to school with a JB backpack, other people might think you’re dorky.”
A Disney network spokeswoman told The Daily Beast that “Jonas Brothers music fans span a wide age group—their fan club members’ median age is 16, and at last month’s performance at The Grove in L.A., the crowd was predominantly tweens and teenagers.”
Still, Disney seems to have foreseen the shift reported in its market research, and has drastically revamped the Jonas Brothers' Disney Channel show, the second season of which premieres Sunday. Now titled Jonas L.A., as opposed to just Jonas, the show, which stumbled in the ratings its first outing, has been made to resemble a saccharine version of Entourage. Indeed, the brief snippet of the show displayed on the Disney Channel website is almost an exact replication of the opening-credit sequence of HBO’s popular series. Shot with a single camera (considered more gritty than the multicamera format), on Jonas L.A. the brothers are given a greater taste of freedom and adulthood. According to a source who has seen episodes of the show, the JoBros have sushi parties. They go golfing. And of course, there is romance—though nothing gets too racy, considering that the Disney Channel allows only one kiss per season.
Other details will remind viewers that no Disney Channel show could ever really be confused for Entourage. According to a source, when Gary Marsh, the Disney Channel’s entertainment president, saw early cuts of the show and realized that the guys were shown living alone in a beach house, he insisted that an adult character—Aunt Lisa—be written into the show. Aunt Lisa, who lives with the brothers, has no ostensible role on Jonas L.A., but dutifully appears in every episode to pop in and say things like, “I’ve got my eye on you!,” and then leaves. (According to the network spokeswoman, “This is because Disney Channel maintains the highest standards to ensure that its programming is appropriate for kids age 6-14.”)
And to deal with the fact that in real life 22-year-old Kevin is married and thus not on the market, his love interest on the show is his car.
This kind of flailing is uncharacteristic for a company that has perfected the art of taking All-American kids and—by funneling them through the Disney merchandising and packaging machines (not to mention cable channels, networks, record labels, and film divisions)—turning them into household names, from Raven-Symoné to Hilary Duff to Miley Cyrus to, most recently, Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato.
From the start, however, the Jonases posed a unique challenge, seeing as they were already a popular music group when Disney brought them into the family back in 2006. Thus there was always the threat of overexposure, something that was never a fear with an unknown like, say, Lovato. The privileged, and very sexy, reality of the Jonases’ actual lives also made them hard to sell as ordinary kids who just happened to—surprise!—have hidden talents, the conceit behind most of the Disney teeny-bopper narratives, from Cyrus’ Hannah Montana to Duff’s Lizzie McGuire.
This may have been why the first season of Jonas, in which the brothers played high-school kids, didn’t take off the way Disney hoped. As one executive at a rival network said, “The concept was disingenuous, and kids sniff out inauthenticity. It’s hard to make the Jonas Brothers regular kids when they’re already superstars. I think that’s what probably alienated their fanbase.”
(Ironically, that premise was far more plausible than the show’s original pilot, in which the brothers played undercover spies hired by a secret government organization—the show’s acronym stood for Junior Operatives Networking As Spies.)
But even if Jonas L.A. fixes this problem—living the high life in Los Angeles is much more in vein with how the Jonases live off-camera—there’s no doubt that the trio is at a crossroads. Having entered their twenties (with the exception of Nick, who’s 17), it’s getting harder to deny their maturation, from Kevin’s marriage to Nick’s recent solo album (another disappointment).
It’s a question that’s plagued many teen stars and resulted in wildly different trajectories, from the success story of Justin Timberlake to the cautionary tale of Hanson.
“Anybody in that part of the business knows that this is what happens,” said Stan Rogow, who was an executive producer on the Disney Channel show Lizzie McGuire. “It’s that moment of transition that’s very difficult to navigate, when, all of a sudden, the sentiment is, ‘That’s what I liked as a kid.’”
So what will it be for the JoBros, who are feeling all the more stale in comparison to a fast-rising 16-year-old like Justin Bieber, whose sense of authenticity and support from mainstream acts like Usher is striking a chord with young audiences in a very big way?
Whatever the answer is, the Jonas Brothers are hardly going out of business, even if their business is not quite what it was. According to Billboard, in 2009, they earned $33.5 million (just $3 million behind Pink and $5 million behind Britney Spears), primarily from their world tour, but also from CD and digital sales, publishing royalties, and other forms of streaming.
But the Jonas Brothers, even at the height of their popularity, were never in Miley Cyrus’ league, whose first two Hannah Montana soundtracks sold 3.7 million and 3.3 million records, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Their 2007 breakout album, Jonas Brothers, has sold 1.9 million copies to date, followed by 2008’s Little Bit Longer (1.6 million), and last year’s Lines, Vines, and Trying Times (640,000).
Ann Donahue, a senior editor at Billboard, addressed the erosion and the Bieber threat. “I think it’s something of a changing of the guard in terms of a teen pop crush,” she said. “Justin Bieber is definitely the next new thing and is overshadowing the Jonas Brothers. But Bieber doesn’t have the marketing power of Disney behind him, which can’t be discounted.”
But as the market research indicates, it won’t be easy to reverse the tide. Disney is committed to trying, though. “They’re doing everything to hold on to the brand,” said a source familiar with their thinking “Or, at least, trying to milk every last drop out of them before they’re dead.”
Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast reporter for The Daily Beast and the author of The Men Who Would Be King: An Almost Epic Tale of Moguls, Movies, and a Company Called DreamWorks.