As executive VP of creative development and strategy at Disney Branded Television, Ayo Davis discussed the live-action slate she oversees for Disney+, Disney Channel, Disney XD and Disney Junior and the traits she looks for in talent behind and in front of the camera at the TV Kids Summer Festival.
In conversation with TV Kids’ Anna Carugati, Davis opened the session discussing the creation of Disney Branded Television, which oversees the linear channels and the Disney tile on Disney+. “We’re focused on developing, producing and marketing the best content in the world for both streaming and our linear platforms,” Davis said. “For our linear platforms, we are focused on highly repeatable comedies, and for streaming, we are focused on finding eventized television that is going to bring the wow factor and make children and families lean in.”
Read excerpts of the keynote below and watch the entire session here.
Within Disney Branded Television, Davis oversees live-action programming across scripted and unscripted series, movies and specials, talent and casting, content integration, the educational resource group and diversity and inclusion. “What’s been exciting about the reorganization is it gives us the opportunity to focus 100 percent of our energy on creating content for a variety of platforms, and the business part is now being handled mainly by our partners on the distribution side.”
On what the Disney brand stands for in a cluttered environment, Davis noted, “I like to say our business is a world of wonderment. We’re dedicated to aspirational, fun and relevant storytelling. Our goal is to create stories that will connect and resonate with our audiences by evoking emotion and excitement while keeping them engaged and wanting more. We are a destination where kids and families see themselves in the characters and stories they are watching. And unlike any other company, we have the added ability to use Disney IP and its beloved characters in our storytelling, which we know resonates so deeply with our audiences across the globe. We talk a lot about this generation of kids and families and how incredibly savvy they are. Over the past year, they’ve been impacted by challenging circumstances, health and social factors. They are acutely aware that there’s a responsibility to transform and reimagine the future. This is front and center for us when we’re thinking about development. It is vital that we create programming that meets their needs and exceeds their expectations.”
As for what she looks for in writers, creators, showrunners and on-screen talent, Davis said the development process begins with “asking ourselves: What makes this right for Disney? Is this aligned with our brand filters, such as joy, aspiration, music, inspirational fun? Is this universal or authentic storytelling? Is there a fresh or unique take on something we haven’t heard before?”
That extends to talent outside of the U.S. as well, Davis said. “This is a huge, global company. Disney+ is in more than 100 million homes around the world. It is incumbent on us to ensure we are telling stories and bringing characters to life that resonate globally.”
Davis spent many years casting shows at ABC. “I’ve spent my entire career advocating and fighting for and taking chances on talent in front of the camera. That remains true in this world when I think about the kinds of stories I’d like to see developed. With so many platforms producing content, finding that diamond in the rough is challenging. But when we do, it is so rewarding.”
Davis is focused on finding talent “who bring their unique perspective and voices to the table. We hear a lot of the same stories. You tend to see the same actors over and over again, which is why I mentioned the diamond in the rough.”
Discussing Disney’s efforts to broaden the talent net, Davis said, “Across the company, there’s a myriad of initiatives that create pipelines to identify diverse talent and fresh, unique voices.” These include Disney Launchpad, the Walt Disney Television Writing Program and Disney Television Discovers, “which are all geared to actors, writers and directors. There’s always more work to be done in this space of diversity, equity and inclusion, and it’s encouraging to see such a collective focus supporting these programs from all across the company.”
Davis has a long history of working with children. “My mother was a social worker by trade. She owned group homes for abused children and she currently owns foster-finding agencies. My sisters and I have been around that our entire lives. We were working in the group homes as child care workers. At one point, I was the program director for one of her group homes. We’ve always been extremely sensitive to the emotional and mental challenges that children have. That has always been a part of our DNA. How can we help children be better, be the best they can be and realize their full potential? Having the ability to come here [to Disney] and work on content that focuses on children is extremely satisfying. When I think about what’s happening in the world today, all the challenges we’re facing, it is truly gratifying to see that we can create stories that help shape and shift the minds of little children today and course-correct negative narratives. Some of the content we’re working on that does that [includes] Sydney to the Max and Raven’s Home. We’re dealing with episodes that talk about micro-aggressions and body image. There’s an episode about celebrating hair. It’s really exciting that we can tell stories that resonate culturally with what’s happening in society today.”
Davis told a story about her 6-year-old daughter watching a nativity story on another network “and Mary had blue eyes. I know that recessive genes can happen, but I thought to myself in that moment—and I don’t think it was done purposely—I wonder why they gave Mary blue eyes. I became a little consumed with that. Was it to set her apart, as if the storyline of her having baby Jesus wasn’t enough? What did that mean? What does that image mean for children. That’s when I leaned in 100 percent on, I want to be somewhere I can help with that change, especially at the onset of children’s lives.”
On the keys to making live-action shows that will resonate globally, Davis noted, “We are focusing on universal storytelling with authentic voices, homing in on the key traits of Disney—fun, adventure, joy, inspiration, the emotional moments that will resonate. It’s so crucial to have a global footprint with live-action television. That’s our goal.”
Co-viewing is key, Davis added. “We want to focus on four-quadrant television. Television that kids and families can watch together. And that’s not always an easy combo. You have to have that right amount of magic and emotion and sophistication in the storytelling so parents will lean in and kids can watch and enjoy together.”