With The Little Mermaid arriving this week, Consequence is looking back at the Disney Renaissance and how it shaped our culture. Today, we’re taking a look at Disney Channel Original Movies, hand-picking our essential selections throughout the channel’s history. Watch some of these classics on Disney+.
If you were a child in a home with a television at any point in the last 30 years, you’re likely very familiar with Disney Channel Original Movies, or DCOM. The tradition began with Disney Channel’s launch as a premium cable channel in 1983, for which Disney reserved some of their family-oriented movies as “Disney Channel Premiere Films.” These early live-action films, which often aired on Sunday nights, were not necessarily smashing successes, but when Disney Channel transitioned to basic cable in 1997, everything changed.
The Disney “Renaissance” throughout the mid-1990s led to heavily-viewed TV premieres of those films on Disney Channel, and a new generation of content for millennial children began to take shape. Disney rebranded the channel, changed the name of these premiere films to “Disney Channel Original Movies,” and thus began the DCOM era that many of us know and love.
From the years 1999 to 2002, Disney Channel premiered a new original film nearly every month, introducing and expanding franchises like Halloweentown, Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century, and Johnny Tsunami. From 2002 to 2010, Disney scaled back in terms of volume, but they didn’t slow down with their marquee releases, and the biggest DCOM in the channel’s history arrived in 2006 with a little movie called High School Musical. Its success was so overwhelming that it left an indelible impact on pop culture and the trilogy’s conclusion became the only DCOM franchise to transition from a television premiere to the big screen.
As Disney Channel continued to put more stock in their current series and franchises — Hannah Montana, The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, The Cheetah Girls, and The Wizards of Waverly Place, for example — they began to gradually scale back the DCOM. From 2013 to today, there’s been a significant decline in volume due to the streaming era and the loss of basic cable viewership. These films and their premieres were once family-friendly movie nights tied to a specific time, but now, the direct-to-Disney+ strategy is likely the only way to get people to keep watching.
It’s endlessly fascinating to look back on these earlier films and see how they were connected to larger cultural moments. Spanning over 40 years, there have been many eras of the DCOM — so here’s a journey through the most notable ones in the history of Disney Channel.
— Paolo Ragusa