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A Star Is Born, Disney Style


How the Mouse House rescued the Jonas Brothers from oblivion and rebranded them as tween idols

Nick Jonas is only 15. But the youngest member of the Jonas Brothers, the latest boy band to beguile the tween/teen set, knows exactly what it means to have Walt Disney's (DIS) marketing machine behind him and his siblings Joe, 18, and Kevin, 20. "Who wouldn't want to be part of the biggest media company in the world?" says Jonas. "They're putting us everywhere."

Using the same M.O. that made a billion-dollar franchise out of Hannah Montana (aka actress-singer Miley Cyrus), the Mouse House is betting that there's no such thing as too much Jonas Brothers. At the heart of the effort is the Disney Channel, a star-making juggernaut seen in nearly 95 million American homes. Over the past decade the channel has remade itself into a must-see for girls ages 9 to 14, though it remains a kiddie destination, too.

Next month the cable outlet will launch a reality series called The Jonas Brothers: Living the Dream. On June 20 comes the TV movie Camp Rock, about budding rock musicians; in the fall the brothers will star in a Monkees-esque spy romp called J.O.N.A.S. The movie, which will also air on other Disney-owned channels such as ABC (DIS), and the shows are designed to build momentum for the Jonas Brothers' third album. The disc arrives in August and coincides with a 38-city North American tour.

Only two years ago the Jonas Brothers were flirting with oblivion. Sony's (SNE) Columbia Records label had signed the pop-rock band on the strength of Nick's talent. He began performing on Broadway at the age of seven, including a stint playing Chip in Disney's Beauty & the Beast. Nick signed with Columbia as a Christian pop artist—father Kevin is a Wyckoff (N.J.) pastor. Later, Steve Greenberg, Columbia's president at the time, stumbled on a CD Nick had cut and heard what Greenberg deemed the most bankable voice since he discovered the Hanson brothers in the 1990s. Looking to duplicate that triumph, Greenberg got the Jonases together and had them record an album, It's About Time. Released in 2006, it tanked, selling just 65,000 copies. Industry insiders say Columbia was in the midst of a management shakeup and didn't push the record.

By then, Buena Vista Music Group Chairman Bob Cavallo was on the case. A onetime concert promoter who managed Prince in the 1980s, Cavallo says the Jonas Brothers aren't just a manufactured band—they have natural talent and charisma to spare. "I heard the Beatles," he says, with characteristic Hollywood understatement. Cavallo signed the brothers in late 2006 and hired a veteran producer to tweak their sound. "They fit perfectly with the Disney philosophy: upbeat, cheerful music that plays well with younger kids and is acceptable to their moms," says Leesa Coble, editor-in-chief of Tiger Beat magazine.

Even before the album came out, Disney, keen to introduce the band to a wider audience, began flooding the airwaves with music from the first CD. In nine months the Disney Channel showed five Jonas Brothers videos, often as many as 50 times a week. The group's members popped up during breaks between shows, strumming a few chords, grinning at the camera, and so on. Meanwhile, the 52- station Radio Disney network started pushing the Jonas Brothers, staging promotions and sending the lads out to play concerts at malls around the U.S.

Before Disney got involved, Top 40 radio stations wouldn't touch the Jonas Brothers—they were deemed too saccharine. That changed after tweens began inundating deejays with requests for the "Jo-Bros." When Disney's Hollywood Records label released Jonas Brothers, their second CD, last July, it exploded right out of the gate. The disc has sold more than 1.1 million copies to date, and two of its singles cracked Billboard's Top 10 digital downloads.

FEEDING BUZZ

All the while, Disney has followed its patented tween-machine game plan: Use one franchise to promote the next. Back in 2006 the company gave Hannah Montana a major boost by assigning its star, Cyrus, a guest role on The Suite Life of Zack & Cody, a popular Disney Channel series about a pair of mischievous twins who live in a hotel.

Last year, Cyrus' show did the same for her label mates. Just as the Jonas Brothers were about to release their second album, Disney cast them in starring roles in an episode airing right after the premiere of the smash hit High School Musical 2. That Hannah Montana episode drew 10.7 million viewers, one of the highest ratings in cable TV history. "This is old-school artist development," says Larry Solters, who runs Scoop Marketing, a Los Angeles public relations firm.

Already, Disney is enlisting the Jonas Brothers to help rocket its next star into orbit. Just as the company asked the band to open for last year's sold-out Miley Cyrus tour, this year it's putting 15-year-old singer-actress Demi Lovato onstage before the Jonases tune up. Lovato has been a player since she was six, when she starred alongside Barney on kids' cable channel Nickelodeon (VIA). Featured in the upcoming Camp Rock movie as well, she is Disney's next franchise-in-waiting.

Grover is Los Angeles bureau chief for BusinessWeek.

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