Little girls can’t stop talking about “Sofia the First,” the new princess Disney has cooked up; An inside look into how five years of development and testing plot lines on preschoolers gave rise to the anti-Cinderella

April 9, 2013, 8:05 p.m. ET

Test-Marketing a Modern Princess

Sofia the First Doesn’t Need a Prince to Rescue Her, but She Sure Has a Nice Tiara

By KATHERINE ROSMAN

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Little girls can’t stop talking about “Sofia the First,” the new princess Disney has cooked up. Katie Rosman has an inside look into how five years of development and testing plot lines on preschoolers gave rise to the anti-Cinderella. Photo: Disney Enterprises Inc.

What makes a princess irresistible to little girls who love pink—and tolerable to their parents who want modern role models?

Walt Disney Co., DIS +0.54% a company that has built mammoth product franchises out of traditional princesses, thinks she should be confident, resourceful and focused on being a good person. She should not be valued most of all for her beauty. Her royal family should include exactly zero evil stepmothers.

For five years, a Disney team of writers, child-development and early-education experts and storytelling consultants worked to create this new sort of royal girl: Sofia the First.

“We knew we didn’t want it to be a young woman looking for a man,” says Nancy Kanter, senior vice president of original programming and general manager of Disney Junior Worldwide.

“Sofia the First” was introduced to children last November when Disney Channel and Disney Junior aired a heavily promoted 45-minute pilot. Then a weekly animated program began to run on Disney Junior on Jan. 11.

The show is this year’s most-watched cable series among children 2 to 5, according to Nielsen Holdings NV NLSN +0.17% data provided by Disney. An illustrated storybook released last fall by Disney is in its fifth printing. The soundtrack ranks fourth on Billboard’s children’s music chart. Sofia is already a live attraction at Disney California Adventure and Disney Hollywood Studios in Orlando, Fla. A wide release of dolls and action figures will hit toy-store shelves this summer.“Sofia” is already crucial to the network as it takes on “Blue’s Clues,” “Yo Gabba Gabba!” and other fare from rival network Nick Jr., a subsidiary of Viacom Inc.VIAB -1.36%

The cable show focuses on a plucky girl who lives in a village in the kingdom of Enchancia with her mother, Miranda. Miranda is an unmarried shoe-cobbler who meets and marries Enchancia’s King Roland. Sofia needs to adapt to a new dad, two new stepsiblings, a new school and a new royal way of life with fairy teachers, a sorcerer and a wry butler. (If this doesn’t sound enough like a magical modern family, Ariel Winter, who plays Alex Dunphy on ABC’s hit “Modern Family,” is the voice of Sofia. Walt Disney Co. also owns ABC.)

With Sofia, Disney aims to avoid the stereotype of girls needing a prince to save them, or the concept of conniving stepmothers.

“We’re undoing all that damage,” Ms. Kanter says.

“Everyone is aware of the ‘princess luggage,’ ” says Bobette Buster, a story consultant hired by Disney to help with “Sofia.”

On a recent Wednesday morning, Ms. Kanter shared a new Sofia story with young children at a school near Disney’s Burbank, Calif., headquarters.

“My favorite part is when the bunny crashes into the window,” said Jada, 5.

Kayla, 7, said she most enjoyed Sofia’s stepsister, Amber: “She’s kinda mean but kinda nice.”

Nathan, age 4, whose T-shirt read, “COOL BEYOND MY YEARS,” declined to share an opinion.

The children are students at ABC Little School (the private school has no connection to the Disney-owned network). Like a small collection of other schools in the greater Los Angeles area, this school welcomes Disney Junior executives into its facility several times a year so they can meet with small groups of preschoolers and kindergartners to get their opinion on episodes in development for series like “Sofia,” “Jake and the Never Land Pirates” and “Doc McStuffins.” In exchange, the children are given Disney Junior stickers and the school receives $100 per visit.

Ms. Kanter says that testing plotlines on preschoolers before work begins on scripts and animation is vital to the development process. When her team presented the “Sofia’s First Slumber Party” story to a preschool panel, they realized kids aren’t familiar with the phrase “slumber party.” The episode became “The Big Sleepover.”

The Sofia story at the preschool focused on themes of peer pressure. In the story, Sofia, a friend and her stepsiblings bring pets to school even though it is against the rules.

Before reading the story out loud, Ms. Kanter and her colleagues set up a video camera on a tripod and situated the kids on a carpet, with each child visible to the camera.

As the story was read, Vicki Ariyasu, executive director of Disney Junior Educational Resource Group, sat at a small table taking notes on a script while another Disney employee tapped at her laptop. The children listened while pulling at their nametags and fidgeting, but not excessively.

Outside the room, some kids ran around outdoors on a concrete playground. Others laid on cots in a dark nook watching Disney Junior on a large, wall-mounted TV screen.

Back at the office, Ms. Ariyasu and her group reviewed their notes and determined that, generally, the children understood the message and the plot. They wrote a report with minor recommendations to the writers, including a suggestion to make the story’s moral more explicit for the youngest viewers: that breaking the rules is an exercise of your own free will.

While Sofia represents a departure from the likes of Ariel, the little mermaid willing to trade her voice to be reunited with a man she met once, she’s still a Disney princess. She’s pretty, she lives in a castle and she wears gowns. She even got advice from Cinderella, who paid her a visit in the first episode.

Craig Gerber, Sofia’s creator and the show’s executive producer, says he imagined Sofia as the child of a single mother because doing so offered an easy way to explore themes of adaptation and a family situation that resonates with many kids. He also plans to nod at multicultural family dynamics: Miranda wasn’t born in Enchancia and is, he says, “of mixed fairy-tale heritage.”

Mr. Gerber was writing for the fairy group of another Disney division. “I was working as a writer on Tinkerbell movies,” says the 42-year-old father of two young boys. That’s when Ms. Kanter asked him to pitch her a princess. He wanted to create one who could benefit from the fun of living in a fantasy world of flying horses and magic potions but to whom children also could relate.

For his secondary audience, parents, Mr. Gerber sneaks in bits of dialogue and cultural references. In one episode, Sofia is riding her flying horse and whizzes so closely and rapidly past one of her adult minders, he spills his coffee. Mr. Gerber labels this scene his “homage” to “Top Gun.” In the original songs included in the episodes, he and the composer avoid cloying kiddie sounds and instead aim to bring in elements of Motown, jazz and hip-hop music.

His goal is to entertain and inspire children and, he says, to elicit this response from their parents: “Wow, I can stand watching this show.”

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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