The Search for the First Disney Channel Original Series

The Search for the First Disney Channel Original Series

If this is your first time visiting my website, welcome! If you’re not new, welcome back! I’m a Disney Channel historian and a ’90s baby. I recently made a short video discussing the inaugural DCOM (feel free to watch it here and let me know what you consider to be the first Disney Channel Original Movie). Some say it’s Under Wraps (1997), some say it’s Northern Lights (1997), and others say it’s the Disney Channel Premiere Film Tiger Town (1983) — none of these are on Disney+, I’m afraid.

Today, I’m asking a similar question. What was the very first Disney Channel Original Series? I haven’t met a single person who uses “DCOS” as an acronym in the way that we instantly recognize “DCOM.” However, the phrase “Disney Channel Original Series” still rings a bell for most fans. I decided to ask my trusty Internet friends what they thought Disney Channel’s first original series was. Altogether, I received five different titles: Welcome to Pooh Corner, The All New Mickey Mouse Club, The Famous Jett Jackson, Even Stevens, and That’s So Raven. A great list that goes from the Disney Channel launch in 1983 to the That’s So Raven premiere in 2003.

I’m not surprised that a 20-year span arose from my question. In those two decades, the channel was rebranded (more than once) and underwent several transformations in programming. Welcome to Pooh Corner would make a lot of sense as the first “Disney Channel Original Series,” since it took classic Disney characters, turned them into life-size puppets, and gave them completely new stories. Per the first issue of The Disney Channel Magazine, Welcome to Pooh Corner was the third-ever series to air on the channel. First was Good Morning, Mickey!, and second was Mousercise. I wouldn’t classify Good Morning, Mickey! as the initial Disney Channel original series because it was a compilation of pre-existing Disney animations (the “Three Little Pigs” short, for example). Mousercise was pretty original, taking inspiration from a Walt Disney Records album and adding in a full-on ’80s aerobic exercise instructor, the late Kellyn Plasschaert. Below is a portion of the schedule from the channel’s very first month, beginning with the April 18 premiere date, from The Disney Channel Magazine.

Portion of April 1983 schedule from Disney Channel Magazine

The All New Mickey Mouse Club is one of the Disney Channel’s most recognizable programs from its era (1989-1994/1995, depending on who you ask). Like Kids Incorporated, it was a debut for eventual pop icons and actors. By that point, a handful of other “original” series had aired, but the MMC still stands out for its talent.

Let’s come back to The Famous Jett Jackson and turn now to Even Stevens. Premiering in 2000, Even Stevens predated Lizzie McGuire in presenting a sparring brother-sister duo with reasonable parents and just the right blend of hilarity and sensitivity. Ren and Louis (and Donnie) were very different from Lizzie and Matt — as Louis and Ren locked horns and learned lessons, the Stevens family maintained a zaniness that can’t be replicated; the McGuires had their own quirks, particularly with Lizzie’s animated alter-ego revealing her innermost thoughts. These original Zoog Disney shows ushered in an era, bridged a gap, and literally kicked off a new century.

That takes us to Raven-Symoné, the shining star of That’s So Raven. She’s a comic genius who brought decades of entertainment industry experience to her Disney Channel role as Raven Baxter. When That’s So Raven premiered, the channel was establishing its new identity with another rebrand, bidding farewell to the Zoogs and hello to the wand IDs. Raven’s show was the first original multi-cam sitcom the Disney Channel had offered in a long time. (I know they presented one season of Good Morning, Miss Bliss in the late ’80s before it became Saved by the Bell on NBC.)

Google might direct you to Good Morning, Mickey! when you ask it what the first “Disney Channel Original Series” is. You’ll probably also stumble upon Flash Forward, not to be confused with the 2009-2010 ABC drama. Entertainment Weekly classified the Disney Channel Flash Forward show as the first “under the originals banner.” Another gem unavailable for streaming, Disney’s Flash Forward has a complicated airdate history that I can explain in three parts, for now. Part one: It quietly aired on the channel in 1995, at least on December 24, per archived schedules from the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune. A 1995 archived Toronto Star article featured Flash Forward because it was a Canadian production by Atlantis Films, “in association with Family Channel and The Disney Channel.” At the time, the series was described as a pilot awaiting pick-up. Part two: ABC aired Flash Forward on Saturdays in fall 1996, per the Los Angeles Times, which simply mentioned that it’s about “two 13-year-olds who have been best friends since birth.” I’ve not seen the “Disney Channel Original Series” language used for this show in any ’90s print news sources, but I’m also missing a copy of The Disney Channel Magazine that features the Flash Forward leads, Ben Foster and Jewel Staite, on its cover. Part three: Flash Forward aired on the Disney Channel as part of a New Year’s Eve marathon to ring in 1997 and then became part of the channel’s lineup. Capitalizing on the show’s title, Disney Channel called the event a “New Year’s Eve Flashback Party.” I’m all for retro TV in its many forms, but these other shows on the marathon schedule were a bit of a surprise: Our Miss Brooks, Gidget, Room 222, and Square Pegs. The idea was a countdown of “Decade by Decade Teen TV.”

December 1996/January 1997 cover of The Disney Channel Magazine featuring Jewel Staite and Ben Foster

On that note, let’s end our travels in the late 1990s. I’m glad my friend sent in The Famous Jett Jackson as an answer to the “original” question. The late Lee Thompson Young was a Disney Channel legend in his own right. His series first aired in 1998, and Young portrayed a teen actor who moves away from Los Angeles to have a more normal life with his father in North Carolina. The Famous Jett Jackson is (sadly) unavailable on Disney’s streaming platform, but So Weird is available. I was not watching So Weird during its first run, and I’m not sure too many other five and six-year-olds were, either. But I absolutely love it now. Fi Phillips (Cara DeLizia) and, later, Annie Thelen (Alexz Johnson) are teen girls who attract paranormal forces. The writing is so good, the acting so convincing, that this series defies genre for me. I’ve seen it associated with sci-fi, horror, and drama, but it’s so nuanced. As I searched through news archives, I found a December 1998 ad in The Star Press of Muncie, Indiana. Once again, the Disney Channel was gearing up for a new year of programming. The Famous Jett Jackson was described as “a new action-adventure series.” Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century would air for the first time as the out-of-this-world DCOM we all know it to be. Then we have So Weird: “A new Disney Channel original series…”

News clipping from The Star Press, December 1998

Could So Weird be the first series on the network to get that title in print? What about on television, in Disney Channel promos? A quick YouTube search brought me to a commercial for The Jersey (premiered in 1999), and those same words were uttered: “a new Disney Channel original series.” Ah! And here it’s said again in a promo for So Weird! Is 1999 the magical year? Is that the point in time when other existing shows retroactively became “Disney Channel Original Series?” Or is there some mention of Flash Forward with that exact title that I’ve not yet uncovered? I’m excited to find out, and I think it’s a somewhat important distinction to make. Whatever the answer is, I love these shows, and I love sharing memories with fellow Disney Channel viewers! Thanks for reading, and please share your Disney Channel thoughts with me anytime.

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