The new Brat pack: Disney’s reign over tweens seems to be coming to an end
To attain a firm grasp on what in the actual fuck the digital programming platform Brat is, we need to discuss the nuance between the young people that comprise Generation Z. Generation Z encompasses anyone born between 1997 and 2009, but as anyone born between 1997 and 2009 will tell you, this is not the full truth. As a result of the dawn of the smartphone and easier internet accessibility, our generation is in many ways fragmented by way of extreme differences in childhoods. Generation Z is comprised of two distinct sectors: those who watched their chaste crushes on Nick Jonas evolve into sexually charged feelings towards Harry Styles and those who (unironically) crush on Noah Centineo and Jacob Sartorius. Some of us remember big drama unfolding on G-chat, while others can only recall Snapchat. Most importantly, while some of us were raised on a television diet consisting of Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon and Disney Channel with occasional sprinkles of YouTube for clips or music, the younger sector’s entertainment is almost completely based on YouTube. Nowhere else is this difference between us as apparent than on the Brat network.
For those not cool enough to be in the know about the hottest children’s programming, Brat is a new digital network created by app developer Rob Fishman, with content that is targeted at the eight- to 13-year-old demographic. Armed with $40 million from investors, Fishman’s goal with Brat was to steer YouTube away from the monotony of vlog content and short-form Vine style comedy and transform it into a legitimate platform that not only offers the former, but also can serve as a real competitor to television. In his pursuit of the ubiquity of networks like Disney Channel and Nickelodeon, Fishman has decided to tamper with the formula in some ways to great success. Banking on the community of the Internet that largely defines the younger sector of Generation Z, Fishman has shrewdly taken a shortcut; rather than awaiting a team of executives to discover and mold an unknown, Brat is hiring viral teen sensations.
By bringing aboard and crafting vehicles around tweens who have already amassed a huge following on apps like Tik Tok (R.I.P. Musical.ly), the only thing needed to promote the shows are the names of the mini-celebrities. Shows on Brat are billed as “Annie” and “Hayden” in “Chicken Girls” or “Kehlani” and “Taylor” in “Dirt.” To put their fame in perspective, all of them are apparently big enough to their respective fanbases to be recognized as mononyms. Whereas in the past, the project (a “High School Musical,” for example) would do the job of promoting then-unknown actors, on Brat the reverse is true. If a show needs to land, they will shove in someone that they know their preteen masses will love. It almost sounds too easy, yet the system is clearly working — a little over a year after its initial launch, Brat is surpassing its creator’s expectations, with at least 10 individual shows being cranked out so fast that some are already in their third season, and are averaging at least three million views per episode.
Fishman and company also take advantage of the lack of sophistication of Brat’s primary audience. For someone who is reportedly backed by investors with $40 million to craft an online network from scratch, the quality of the product should not look as pathetic as it does. The sets look laughably fake. Not one person on Brat’s payroll can act. The central stars, the tertiary characters and even the adults act as though they have never processed the English language before. Even more hilariously, there is little consideration given to casting characters who look their age that it took me an entire season of “Chicken Girls” to decipher which grade the characters were in. However, the joke is not on Fishman for producing lackluster content. At the end of the day, he is still profiting immensely. Brat is not trying to boast the newest crop of teenage acting phenomena, and they’re not apologizing for not doing so. Brat is all gimmicks, no talent.
The gimmicks have only become more evident in Brat’s quest to outdo Disney — to do what Disney has never been able to do. Even in its inaugural year, Brat has undergone rapid image reconstruction to shed its innocent children’s television persona and tackle melodrama. Nowhere is this shift as clear as on its flagship show, “Chicken Girls.” In season one of the show (aired in Sept. 2017), the central drama was wholesome, clean fun — drama between two middle school dance teams, characters being too afraid to kiss boys and hanging out in the neighborhood arcade. Season three (currently airing) has taken a drastically different approach. Nine episodes into season three and I have already witnessed plotlines related to underage tattoos, school vandalism, open mouth kisses with boys at parties, peer pressure from older girls, frank discussions of sexuality, infidelity and using boys as pawns to gain popularity. Someone get me my church fan.
In addition to these drastic changes within one series, Brat has also seen its cleaner content like “BroBot” and “Overnights” canceled in favor of “Dirt,” a new series that is so dangerous that, without a doubt, millions of pre-teen girls across America will be sneaking to watch it after their parents have gone to sleep. Kids are poppin’ pills (granted, it’s Ibuprofen) on “Dirt.” If anything, Brat’s rapid rebranding indicates a mastery of PR, but on a more haunting level, a knowledge of how to straddle the line between innocence and adult content all for the sake of views and profit.
So what does the boom in YouTube celebrity mean for the fate of old standards like Disney Channel and Nickelodeon? While the two still retain the upper hand in terms of recognizability, this recognizability can act as a double-edged sword — because the powerhouses have been operating under the same system, wherein being risqué has always been a hard “no,” if they were to abruptly shift their image it would come across as solely opportunistic and soulless. With Dan Schneider’s ousting at Nickelodeon (among murky accusations) and Disney’s failure to produce stars of the magnitude of the golden era of Miley, Selena and Demi, it seems that Brat is the only network that is daring to do something — granted, icky — different from the typical formula of television targeted pre-teens.
Brat seems to be one step ahead of Disney and Nick in all respects. Brat also has actor/singers akin to the storied traditions of Disney and Nick, but they are strategically advertising their own station on Spotify during their shows. Disney and Nick may have episodes posted on YouTube, but while they cost money to view, every episode of every series on Brat is free. Brat also has an acute understanding of playing up the popular “ships” of characters on their series, in order for the subsequent frenzy to lead to more views and more interaction with their content. Brat and its shows may appear to be a joke to you and me — a 20-year-old woman who chooses to spend free time ridiculing children’s television — but it would be foolish to underestimate the seismic shift in television we are bearing witness to.