You could call Disney Channel President of Entertainment Rich Ross a television matchmaker. From Nickelodeon's classic dude-ranch comedy Hey Dude
to Disney Channel tween sensation Lizzie McGuire, he has proved skillful at marrying sharp talent with a good project and turning out a hit.
He has been doing it seemingly nonstop since arriving at Disney in 1999. His programming prowess has been instrumental in transforming the channel from a premium service with so-so fare to a basic-cable powerhouse and trendsetter.
Most of Ross's 15-years in cable have been with kids nets, earning him a reputation as a kids-programming whiz. But Ross, who has no children, doesn't claim any special window into kids' minds. Rather, he says, the key ingredient to any programming—kids or adults—is "having respect for the talent, whether it is your own team, the people in front of camera, your boss."
A lawyer by training, Ross launched his entertainment career in the mailroom of the William Morris talent agency in New York. It was like graduate school for becoming a television executive, he says. He pitched in for various departments and gained a window into talent management and production. The only aspect that didn't fascinate him was the legal department. "I wanted to be inside to make and do and influence, not just document."
So he passed on a legal career and joined Nickelodeon to build a talent-relations department at the young cable net for kids.
He met Anne Sweeney there. Now president of ABC Cable Networks and Disney Channel Worldwide, she was starting Nick's international and syndication businesses, and the two were in neighboring offices. Ross had a good run creating shows like Hey Dude
and Nickelodeon's Kid Choice Awards, but he was fascinated by Nick's new businesses. So he went to work with Sweeney on new ventures, even shipping out to London for a year to launch the U.K. Nick network.
When she was lured away to set up Fox's cable group, one thing News Corp. chief Rupert Murdoch envisioned was FX as a talent-driven network. Sweeney knew just whom to call in. "Rich has always had an uncanny eye," she says. "He is able to achieve the marriage between these talented people and the right creative properties."
FX was Ross's one stop in programming for adults. That experience has helped him at Disney. Ross wanted to try something new at Disney Channel: shows that kids would love and parents would willingly sit through and, just maybe, enjoy.
It was a risky proposition, he says. Take Lizzie McGuire.
Ross wanted Lizzie's family to have a central role, including a presence in the opening. "It was a time when kid-centric was seemingly the formula" for hit shows, he says. "But we thought, 'Kids live in a family universe.'"
His gamble proved a smart one. Kids and parents gravitated to the show, and Lizzie
has proved a big ticket for Disney Channel and across the Walt Disney Co., as well, spawning a hit movie, merchandise and a singing career.
The hit parade doesn't end there. That's So Raven, Proud Family, Lilo & Stitch: The Series, Jo-Jo's Circus
are among Ross's latest successes. Dave the Barbarian, an animated show about three teenage barbarians, just debuted. And Ross is still cranking.
With Disney in need of a live-action show to interest boys, Ross and his team are crafting futuristic comedy Phil of the Future. He also craves a hit show for Disney's preschool block Playhouse Disney
and is busy brainstorming boy shows for ABC Cable's new Jetix
action and adventure blocks.
Don't look for Ross to bounce to adult programming any time soon. He says people are always asking when he'll "graduate" to adult TV, but he doesn't see how that would be better. "I run a business that is lucrative and powerful for kids and families. I love that I have become a rock star to 9-year-olds."