Disney's Dilemma: The Cynical Child vs. Snow White

For kids prematurely jaded by <I>South Park</I> and <I>Seinfeld</I>, Disney entertainment seems downright saccharine.
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Mickey Mouse is still Mickey Mouse, but Disney is no longer the company it once was. The icon of American culture, which in its heyday regularly steamrolled Wall Street's expectations as it churned out top-notch entertainment, is struggling to redefine itself as an evolving society threatens to make its core business less relevant. This five-part series, which runs through Friday, takes a look at the challenges facing Disney as it tries to reverse its recently flagging fortunes. For a look at the first part of this story, click here.

The way computers are changing childhood represents both an opportunity and a threat for

Disney

(DIS) - Get Report

. But the second trend that's driving age compression may prove even trickier for Disney to handle, because it cuts at the heart of the way the company has defined childhood for 70 years, since its eponymous founder created Steamboat Willie, a.k.a. Mickey Mouse.

Walt Disney never forgot the stresses of his own childhood, filled with hard work and money worries, and he wanted children to have a chance for fantasy, freedom and escape. From

Snow White

to

The Lion King

, his company has followed that formula, often brilliantly. In Disney's universe, good triumphs evil, and heroes rarely die. Sex and violence are largely absent. So are irony and sarcasm.

Writing about Walt Disney World, Stephen Fjellman, a

Florida International University

professor (and self-proclaimed Disney fan), notes: "We are told constantly how to feel about each WDW venue. Everything is magical. Guide books, advertisements and commemorative literature drip with description. This is 'exhilarating'; that is 'wonderful' or 'amazing.' WDW literature is the retirement home of the inflationary descriptive adjective."

Is Disney's commercialized idealism healthy or harmful? That's a matter of personal taste, says Jerome Kagan, a

Harvard University

psychology professor. "This is a philosophical view: Is it more mature to see the world without illusion, or is it more mature to see the world with illusion?" Kagan says.

But what's beyond question is the fact that, for most of this century, the Disney ethos that childhood should be a protected space both reflected and helped to shape the way American parents treated their kids. From a corporate standpoint, Disney's reputation for safe entertainment gave it a enormous advantage in selling its products to parents, who largely defined what their kids could see.

Unfortunately for Disney, many parents no longer control what their kids watch. With 280 million televisions in the U.S., one for every man, woman and child, many kids now have televisions in their rooms. Parents, who have their own televisions and their own favorite shows, don't want to spend quality TV time arguing with their kids about what to watch. As a result, by the time children enter first grade, parents "are basically throwing their hands up in the air and basically saying, 'We can't control what the kids are watching,'" says Michael Cohen, a psychologist who has consulted for Disney and is a principal at

ARC

, a New York research firm. For single parents or parents working two jobs, even the pretense of control is impossible.

At the same time, with cable ubiquitous and network standard rules greatly weakened, the tube now presents kids with a very grown-up (though not necessarily mature) universe. From the fart jokes on

South Park

to the curse-laden fistfights on

Jerry Springer

to the sexual innuendo on

Friends

to the self-referential irony of

Seinfeld

, television today is often gleefully unwholesome. Most of this material isn't meant for children, at least in theory. But it airs at times when kids can -- and do -- watch it. (While children's television use is down, kids have hardly gone TV-free. They're still watching more than 2 1/2 hours of television a day.)

Even

MTV

, which programs mainly for teens and college students with sex-heavy shows like its spring break specials, "can't overlook the fact that a 9- to 11-year-old is watching us," says Todd Cunningham, vice president of research and planning for

MTV Networks

. "We've paid more attention to it in the last year and a half."

For kids, the result has been sadly predictable.

Children have learned to adopt "a certain kind of surface cynicism," says Uli Knoepflmacher, a

Princeton University

literature professor who studies children's literature. "You have to show cool and be savvy, and hence the cynical air of mistrust that you adopt. My 9-year-old

is always having little ironic commentary about things that he hears on the news, things that he sees on television. I don't remember my older children going through that phase."

"There's definitely a sense in which at a much earlier age, television brings kids into a hip, ironic mode that is defining our culture," says Robert Thompson, director of the

Center for the Study of Popular Television

at

Syracuse University

. "It's amazing how early kids are able to adopt an ironic stance on things. I'm starting to hear 3-year-olds make really ironic statements."

In comparison, the fantasies that Disney is so good at producing seem tame, even hokey.

"The pressure on a Disney, for example, is how do you compete for the attention of young viewers who are jaded by

South Park

and

WWF

," says David Walsh, president of the nonprofit

National Institute on Media and the Family

, which rates television shows and movies based on their violence and sexual content. "There's something that's fascinating with us about the outrageous."

Johann Wachs of advertising firm

Saatchi & Saatchi

is more blunt. "Disney is an attachment brand," he says. "It's stuff that your parents love and think is good for you, which to a 10-year-old is very boring."

And for a company that wants to appeal to children, boring may be the ultimate sin.

Friday: The competition -- and the future