It happens every fall. A slate of new TV programs for kids hits the airwaves accompanied by a flurry of expectations and promotional build-ups. The stakes are high, the competition plentiful. And for those shows that catch on, the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is the money to be made from licensed merchandise.
Of course, picking the winners from among the also-rans is anything but easy. Would you have bet on the appeal of, say, a band of warrior turtles from the sewers of Manhattan? Or what about a pair of lovable bananas decked out in striped sleepwear?
"If this were an inherently predictable business, there would be fewer mistakes made," says Martin Brochstein, executive editor of The Licensing Letter, a bimonthly newsletter. "There is no accounting for the tastes of American children--or adults, for that matter."
Go figure: Both the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Bananas in Pajamas struck a chord with young viewers. How will these same youngsters respond to the cast of characters in this fall's TV lineup? Whose likenesses are destined to appear on lunch boxes or be turned into toys and action figures?
Alas, there's no telling. But because the children's licensed properties industry is such big business for small businesses, we thought it would be interesting to go behind the scenes of one of this season's most highly anticipated shows. If you've ever wondered exactly what goes into the making--and merchandising--of a syndicated TV series for kids, follow us into the mysterious world of "Mummies Alive."
"By the power of Osiris! By the heart of Ptah! By the strength of Isis! By the eye of Ra!" With these individual battle cries, the four mummy heroes of "Mummies Alive" prepare themselves to combat their archenemy, the evil sorcerer Scarab. Scarab's goal? World domination, of course. Before he takes over modern-day society, however, the recently unearthed sorcerer must ensure his own immortality with the reluctant help of a 12-year-old San Francisco boy who just happens to be the reincarnated son of an Egyptian pharaoh. Naturally, hijinks ensue.
"First and foremost, you have to have good stories and rich characters--you can't do anything without them," says Andy Heyward, president of DIC Entertainment LP, the Burbank, California-based children's entertainment company that's producing the animated series. "If you try to circumvent that process--or corrupt it--then you end up going down a bad track. If you start out thinking `How am I going to create toys?' you're never going to have good stories. And if the stories aren't good, the kids won't watch it--and it won't have any interest for anybody."
Heyward, a longtime veteran of children's programming, initially dreamed up the idea for a show revolving around mummies after a family visit two years ago to the British Museum in London. "I couldn't help but marvel at the fascination my kids had for the mummies [they saw there]," he explains.
Sensing he'd hit upon a winning concept, Heyward teamed up with well-known director/producer Ivan Reitman to create "Mummies Alive." Having already worked together on "The Real Ghostbusters" series, DIC and Reitman's company, Northern Lights Productions Inc., reunited to bring the mummies program to life.
If and when kids begin exclaiming "Show me the mummies merchandise!" it will be music to Joy Tashjian's ears. As DIC's president of merchandising and sales, Tashjian is responsible for getting the mummies to market. "Merchandising is called in quite early [to assess] product applications," she explains. "That does not mean we come in and change the story line and say `Gee, if we give the mummies a big gun, that'll make it a much better toy.' We don't really want to mix [the creative and licensing aspects]."
What they do want to do, says Tashjian, is determine at the outset the best way to showcase the property they're working on. "Once we know there is a series in place, we begin our presentation process to the various toy and publishing companies," she says. "Certain properties really don't lend themselves to toy [merchandise]; they may be better suited for computer games. Or they may be more appropriate for a publishing line. We need to make these kinds of determinations so we can design support materials and begin our presentation."
In drumming up interest for a property, Tashjian stresses the importance of distinguishing yourself from the pack. A simple task? Hardly. "Because of the glut of TV products coming out for children, the big dilemma we face is focusing on a position for the property," she says. "For `Mummies Alive,' of course, it's the twist of Egyptology [coupled with] Reitman's tremendous talent for humor. We have to make sure we find a way to have `Mummies Alive' rise above all the other new animated series coming out. So we develop a strategy on several levels--all of which culminate with the viewer, the consumer and the retailer."
Not surprisingly, domestic licensing is the first order of business--the international launch of a property generally follows a year later, according to Tashjian. Of paramount concern, clearly, is the selection of a master toy licensee for "Mummies Alive." DIC's choice? Hasbro Inc., a major toy manufacturer in Cincinnati.
"A partnership with any of the key toy companies is crucial to building a strong merchandising program," explains Tashjian. "You find the company [that will best support a particular property], and, in this case, Hasbro really identified with `Mummies Alive.' This is something they heavily believe in--in fact, they're calling this their number-one boys' line for 1998."
Which isn't to suggest that you can expect a veritable mountain of "Mummies Alive" merchandise coming soon to a toy store near you. Recognizing that it often takes a while for a new show to catch on, DIC has established strict ground rules to prevent premature product rollout. "With the exception of Hasbro, which will have small quantities of `Mummies' action figures in time for Christmas, we will not allow any licensees to ship product to retail [locations] until the first quarter of 1998," Tashjian reveals.
"Before [a property] is established, you're always walking a tightrope of sorts," says Brochstein of The LicensingLetter. "You want to have enough inventory to satisfy demand--and not much more. But if something explodes, you want to be able to take advantage of it--and that's where [your gut instinct] comes in."
Certainly, DIC's Andy Heyward listened to his gut instinct when it told him that a show about mummies would be a kid-pleaser. Nonetheless, making a show and making a hit show are two entirely different things. There is no shortage of entertainment options for the 6- to 12-year-olds that "Mummies Alive" is targeting.
"Today, you've got six networks instead of three--ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, Warner Bros. and UPN--and all the cable [channels]," Heyward says. "Plus, you've got a very active first-run syndication business. And you've got the Internet, video games, VCRs--all this is cannibalizing and fractionalizing the broadcast audience."
What's a group of mummies to do to get noticed in such an overgrown media jungle? To promote the show, Heyward is purchasing a "tremendous amount" of advertising time on stations such as Nickelodeon. In addition, a live-action TV special is being built around the fictionalized opening of an ancient Egyptian tomb housing one of the characters from "Mummies Alive." "It's a very big event, and it's going to be very visible," promises Heyward.
Additionally, there are fast-food restaurant and cereal tie-ins that need to be factored into the equation. " `Mummies Alive' has been presented to all the major quick-service restaurant companies as well as to the various packaged goods companies," says Tashjian. "We don't usually finalize these deals until after information [is available] regarding the ratings."
Ah, yes . . . the ratings. When "Mummies Alive" debuts this fall, it will carry with it some great expectations, both as a program and as a licensed property. "Even in a business where it seems that everything's been done, there's never been an animated mummies series for kids, and there's never been any series where mummies are the good guys," says Tashjian. "So immediately we have a point of difference, which really helps position us as a strong merchandising player for 1998."
If successful, "Mummies Alive" will follow in the footsteps of other DIC children's properties such as "Inspector Gadget" and "Madeline." Just how soon, though, will the company know if it's struck cartoon gold again? "I'd say we'll have a good idea by the end of the year," says Heyward. "It takes maybe three months to watch the ratings and the viewing patterns."
Not that the head of DIC Entertainment is a stranger to this particular form of waiting. "I've been doing this all my life," says Heyward, speaking of his experience in the world of children's programming. "I started as a gopher for Joe Barbera [of Hanna-Barbera Productions]. I was his runner--getting him coffee and everything else. I started at the bottom of the studio." After working his way up to writer, story editor and sales executive for Hanna-Barbera, he left to take his current job at DIC.
"When I have important clients come in, I still get them their coffee," he adds dryly. "So nothing has changed."
Which doesn't necessarily make the waiting any easier. After all, if "Mummies Alive" does make it big, there's that proverbial pot of licensing gold to be realized. Stay tuned.
A Boy's World?
When the animated children's series "Mummies Alive" debuts this fall, its creators are hoping both boys and girls will be wrapped up in the mummies' exploits. Even so, it still seems more of a boy's world in cartoonville.
"From a television standpoint, girls will easily watch boys' series--but the converse is not necessarily true," says Joy Tashjian, president of merchandising and sales for Burbank, California-based DIC Entertainment LP. "Little boys tend not to watch girl-driven series. Unfortunately, for that reason, you don't see a whole lot of girls' series on the air."
As you might expect, gender differences can be observed in licensed products as well. "Very few products succeed that appeal to both girls and boys at a young age," says Tashjian. "We have tried very hard to incorporate girls' elements into `Mummies Alive.' For instance, one of the lead mummy characters is a female. However, if you asked Hasbro Inc., the master licensee, they would tell you this is a boys' action-figure line. At the retail [level], they still view this as a boys' action/adventure series."
This fall, we'll see if viewers agree.
Words To The Wise
So you want to be a licensing star? If you hope to manufacture a product featuring the likenesses of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Bananas in Pajamas--or, yes, the characters from "Mummies Alive"--don't leap before you think.
"We look for a company that really understands the appropriateness of the trademark as it applies to their particular product," says Joy Tashjian, president of merchandising and sales for Burbank, California-based DIC Entertainment LP. "It's very easy to get caught up [in the excitement] of a property. People could call and say `I want to make ["Mummies Alive"] switchblades'--but that would be the most inappropriate type of product for a children's TV series. It's important to focus on making sure the products enhance the image of the property and complement the manufacturer."
Don't make the mistake of underestimating your audience, either, Tashjian warns. "Kids are funny--they know if one hair is out of place on [DIC's] Madeline [doll]," she says. "They knew if one bandage was off on other characters we've done in the past. They are really savvy."
Aside from the quality of your product, Tashjian says she also looks at a company's financial resources and track record with retailers. "They don't have to be the biggest [company]," she says of prospective licensees, "but they have to be solid."
Think you'd like to dig into opportunities for "Mummies Alive"? For information on licensing opportunities, contact the merchandising division of DIC at (818) 955-5636.
DIC Entertainment, 303 N. Glenoaks Blvd., Burbank, CA 91502, (818) 955-5400
Hasbro Inc., http://www.hasbro.com
The Licensing Letter, 160 Mercer St., Third Fl., New York, NY 10012, (212) 941-1633, ext. 19.