Ask any person who grew up watching Disney Channel in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, and they’ll say that the channel’s movies and shows have gotten much worse since they stopped watching. This might be true, but there is always the more unsettling option: The people who grew up watching shows like “Lizzie McGuire” and “Hannah Montana” may have simply aged out of the humor and entertainment factor of Disney Channel.
Disney Channel reached its peak popularity in the early 2000s, between the years of 2002 and 2007. During this time, shows like "Kim Possible," "That’s So Raven," "The Proud Family," "The Suite Life of Zack and Cody," and "Wizards of Waverly Place," as well as movies such as the “High School Musical” trilogy, "Cadet Kelly," and "The Cheetah Girls" enthralled the preteens and youth of the time.
For many, this had been regarded as the “best” age of Disney Channel, with the few years following being included in this Golden Age for the early 2000s kids who grew up on additional shows like "Good Luck Charlie" and "Austin and Ally," and movies such as "Teen Beach Movie" and the “Descendants” trilogy. These movies and shows seem untouchable and the standard for all Disney Channel productions, especially in comparison to the shows that air on the channel today.
Since then, this generation that grew up on this “Golden Age” of Disney Channel has grown up and moved onto more mature television and film, but the company still remains. To them, the new Disney Channel seems unwatchable, crude, and downright tacky at times. Even slightly younger kids, who got the tail-end of this success and spent their Disney Channel years watching "Best Friends Whenever" and "Adventures in Babysitting," agree that there has been a shift in the recent years. As Skylon Thomas and Dane Durrant of The Prospector write:
“They [Modern Disney Channel shows] lack what most shows of our time exceeded in: Quality, values, and good storytelling. They gave examples of the values we as kids (and people in general) should have, while also getting us excited to watch with their unique and entertaining storylines.”
However, nostalgia can often make older generations blind to the flaws in their childhood shows. Though these shows may seem funny when looking back, upon a rewatch, the first episodes and seasons can seem stiff and the actors—many of whom had gotten their big break from these Disney shows—were still learning how to act on camera. The jokes themselves are dated and cheesy (such as the Angry Birds line and Justin Bieber photo at the end of "Teen Beach Movie") that leave re-watchers cringing instead of laughing. As Kirby Harris from The Queen’s Journal said:
“In the earlier seasons of 'Hannah Montana' and 'Wizards of Waverly Place', the young actors had yet to come into their own. The jokes were stale, relying on bad puns and situational humour. The nostalgia factor wasn’t enough to keep me from constantly cringing.”
Nostalgia not only feeds into making the decent seem good, and the good seem great, but making reboots and remakes of the most popular shows. Though the "Kim Possible" live action remake saw less than stellar reviews, and the "That’s So Raven" reboot "Raven’s Home" filled the middle ground between this remake and the acclaimed "Boy Meets World" reboot "Girl Meets World," these new versions of fan-favorites pull in older audiences to see what had been done with their favorite characters, or at least to poke fun at what had been done. More recently, and even more successfully, the "High School Musical" spin off "High School Musical: The Musical: The Series" for Disney+ drew in both old fans of the original trilogy banking on nostalgia, as well new, younger fans. As Rick Bentley for The Bulletin writes:
“There’s already enough nostalgic draw [in reboots] to make sure there will be an initial audience for the project. The key is finding the rhythms to keep the young target audience happy.”
But all this being said, the older generations may be correct in saying Disney Channel has been losing viewers and interest. While some might just be nostalgic and cynical towards the newer content presented to them, the rise in streaming services and on-demand, perfectly catered, endless content like YouTube has pulled younger generations away from the cable box and towards their laptops, iPads, and phones. As a result, traditional television networks have been impacted by this shift. As Skylon Thomas and Dane Durrant of The Prospector write:
“According to Joe Flint of FoxBusiness, Disney’s once stellar numbers of viewers are rapidly dropping as time goes on, and it’s not appearing to get any better. Due to a lack of hit shows in recent years, Disney Channel has lost close to four million viewers.”
This isn’t to say that Disney Channel hasn’t made any hit shows in recent years, though. "Andi Mack," which premiered in 2017 and ended in 2019, made history for featuring the first gay main character in a Disney Channel show, as well as showing the character’s coming out and pushing boundaries in the “perfect Disney Channel family” image by centering the first season’s plot around the main character discovering the woman she presumed to be her older sister was actually her birth mother that gave birth to her as a teenager.
However, besides the few outliers, such as "Andi Mack", and the "Jessie" spinoff "Bunk’d" (though Bunk’d has lost nearly all of its original cast and continues to air with a new cast of characters) which has been on since 2015, Disney Channel has lost its prestige. The shows and stars of today are no longer household names, and kids no longer gravitate towards the television after school in order to watch their favorite shows for hours on end.
Whether Disney Channel meant a childhood of shows from the “Golden Age” of the channel, or growing up with the newer shows, the channel has impacted millions of children’s childhoods. Though nostalgia can cloud the reality with fond memories, it’s clear Disney Channel isn’t what it used to be. No matter the factors at hand, this change has definitely impacted the childhoods of today’s youth. While it is surely a stretch to say Disney had completely gone downhill since the age of "Lizzie McGuire" and "Hannah Montana," Disney Channel hasn’t made a show quite like these hits in a while, and based on their numbers, a hit like that won’t come any time soon.