Convergence culture and Disney: What does this mean for kids?

I’ve always been a Disney fan. And I’m not ashamed to say that I still am. Books, movies and paraphernalia—not to mention frequent trips to Disney World as a child, made the Mouse a staple of my entertainment needs.

But it’s not just the movies. I grew up watching sitcoms on the Disney Channel. The shows are geared towards children and teenagers, but I’m not ashamed to say that at 23, I still watch an episode here and there. It’s the kid in me I guess.

So it’s no surprise that when I recently volunteered to babysit my neighbor’s eight-year-old and five-year-old kids, I meshed really well with their interests. But it struck me that day that something was different about this Disney Channel and the one I grew up with fifteen years ago. During a commercial, I listened to the brother and sister talk about one of the Disney shows. They were discussing the characters and bickering about her favorite color.

“But she wrote about it on her Web site!” said the five-year-old girl. That’s when it hit me.

No longer was Disney Channel just isolated in a box that I chose to turn on and off at my leisure. Now it was connected to something much larger, the Internet. As I watched the rest of the commercials, I began noticing how Web sites for each show were being promoted. And not just the Web sites, but the characters themselves.

For example, the character London Tipton on “The Suite Life of Zack and Cody,” now has her very own Web site (http://tv.disney.go.com/disneychannel/suitelife/yaymestarringlondontipton/index.html).The characters Zack and Cody also have their own blog: http://tv.disney.go.com/disneychannel/suitelifeondeck/yous/. But the more I began looking at these Web sites; I started realizing that no mention was made about the actor behind the character. The character bios, posts and all videos on the site were written in the context of the actor’s persona on the show.

And the more I talked to the kids I was babysitting, the more I realized that they believed the characters on the show were real people. Children as young as five years old were taking advantage of the extras that Disney offers to supplement their broadcast content: Character blogs, Webisodes, games and even live chats.

This is what Henry Jenkins writes about in his book “Convergence   Culture: Where old and new media collide.”  Jenkins discusses the interesting balance between traditional media and new media outlets such as the Internet. As I read the book I began thinking about it in the context of my own behavior, and that of my friends. And it made sense. Jenkins’ description of “converged audiences” accurately described my friends: Active participants, willingly engaging in show extras, watching full episodes online and even playing fantasy Survivor.

But I had never thought about it in terms of the implications of convergence on children. As a child, I didn’t visit Web sites or read blogs “written” by the characters of popular shows.  So no matter how excited I was about a show, that excitement ended when the show was over. That’s just not the case anymore. And I wonder what implications convergence culture could have on this generations’ youth. It no doubt will have some affect, but I’m just not sure if it will be adverse or not.

On one hand, convergence is turning television, (traditionally considered to be a ‘lay back’ medium), to a ‘lean forward’ medium with the added presence of the Internet. On the other hand, however, children are fully immersing themselves in multimedia and added extras that make no attempt to differentiate between the imaginary and the real.

The following video depicts just that. Disney recently released several videos on YouTube to promote a new character on Toy Story 3. They are designed to look like old commercials. Had I not read about them prior to viewing them, I would have believed that they were the real thing.

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