Here’s a simple demography test: Who is Lizzie McGuire?
If you know, you most likely have someone between the ages of 8 and 14 in your household.
If you don’t, more’s the pity.
Lizzie McGuire is the title character in a phenomenally popular Disney Channel series about a junior high school student, her two best friends, her family and her cartoon alter ego. A new episode of the series, which airs 8:30 p.m. today, was the top-rated cable program among preteens last month.
The president of the TV critics association, Diane Werts, describes the popularity of ‘‘Lizzie McGuire’’ as ‘‘akin to a cult.’’
It’s a cult that’s leading to even bigger things. Hilary Duff, the 15-year-old actress who plays Lizzie, is making the move to the big screen with two new movies: ‘‘Agent Cody Banks,’’ which opened March 14, and ‘‘The Lizzie McGuire Movie,’’ which opens May 2.
What’s Duff like? Think Reese Witherspoon in ‘‘Legally Blonde’’ but 10 years younger, think Shirley Temple in ‘‘Curly Top’’ but 10 years older, think Britney Spears in her ‘‘I’m a Slave 4 U’’ video but 10 times as wholesome.
That the young actress is on the cusp of a major movie career delights the Disney Channel, which believes it has a responsibility to nurture its child stars. Besides, Duff’s bigscreen success can only mean even more interest in her Disney Channel work from preteen viewers — or tweens.
Tweens are generally defined as kids who are ages 8 to 14. As a group, they are getting too old for cartoons but are still too young for the teen angst and sexuality dished up by programs such as ‘‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’’ and ‘‘Dawson’s Creek.’’ The tween category includes more than 23 million young viewers, according to MarketResearch.com, and cable networks are competing fiercely for that audience.
A few years ago, the Disney Channel began concentrating on programming for tweens in the late afternoon and evening hours, with half-hour comedy shows such as ‘‘Even Stevens,’’ ‘‘Lizzie McGuire’’ and the newest arrival, ‘‘That’s So Raven,’’ mixed with madefor-TV movies.
The sitcoms tell a story from the point of view of young teens, kids slightly older than the intended audience (critic Werts calls it ‘‘aspirational viewing’’). They deal with situations such as annoying younger brothers, fitting in with social groups, getting in trouble at school and first kisses. Occasionally, the plots can be more fanciful.
The subjects of the movies include sports, family problems and fantasy. A movie titled ‘‘The 13 th Year,’’ for instance, tells the story of a
13-year-old boy who started growing fins and then discovered that his mom was a mermaid.
‘‘It’s a metaphor for adolescence,’’ said Gary Marsh, executive vice president of original programming for the Disney Channel.
Marsh said the key to success with tween viewers is ‘‘finding entry points into their world as often as possible. That’s making sure that the fashion and music is contemporary, making sure that the relationships with the parents are honest, making sure that the school and mall reflect the real world.’’
Lizzie McGuire, all blond curls, high cheekbones and sparkling eyes, asks the boy she has a crush on to go to a school dance with her.
Not interested, he says.
Anyone tuning in to the program for the first time wouldn’t buy it. No boy would turn down this adorable girl for a date.
But that’s the genius of the show.
‘‘We took the sweetest, warmest, cutest girl in school and made her the vulnerable one,’’ Marsh said.
Lizzie McGuire is not the most popular kid in school. She’s not a dork, either. She’s just right in the middle, where, of course, most kids are.
And that, Marsh said, along with Duff’s charisma, is what makes the show work so well. Kids can relate when Lizzie gets rejected.
‘‘If you’re a 10-year-old girl or a 12-year-old girl at home, you’ve already made a connection with her, you’re willing to walk in her shoes.
‘‘When it does happen, your heart breaks for her. Not only do you relate to her, but you feel she can relate to you,’’ Marsh said.