Characters Count

In a more discerning market, not any old character will do.
Magazine Contributor
4 min read

This story appears in the June 1999 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

It's harder to grab the attention of consumers today. Or maybe it's just harder to keep their attention. Whichever is true, tracking trends--and capitalizing on them--is anything but easy. What's hot one day could turn ice cold the next--and vice versa.

Nowhere is this shifting landscape more apparent than in the world of licensed properties for children. Who, for instance, could have envisioned the buying stampede triggered by those oh-so-rotund Teletubbies? On the flip side, last year's Babe sequel failed to live up to merchandising expectations. With so much riding on the hits, how do entrepreneurs know where to place their bets? We went looking for answers.

Just Say "Po"

"The moment I saw them, I fell in love with them," says Kenn Viselman of the stars of the popular Teletubbies TV show. Viselman, whose New York City-based The itsy bitsy Entertainment Company markets the PBS series in the United States, attributes much of the program's international success to its uniqueness. "They're original; they're funny. They really [look like they're] figments of a child's imagination."

"The key for determining whether a property will succeed, in many cases, is originality," agrees Rob Felton, associate editor of the monthly trade magazine License!. "We hear from retailers constantly, `Don't show us this year's version of last year's hot thing.' Retailers and consumers know when they're being pandered to."

A Packed House

There's no escaping the fact that there's a deluge of products competing for shelf space in retail aisles. To complicate matters even further, there's intense pressure to get buzz-worthy fast--or else. "It used to be that a hot property could have a two- or three-year run at retail," notes Felton. "Now you get one holiday season and you're out."

Want to manufacture a line of merchandise for a TV show? Prepare yourself for series cancellation if ratings don't click fast. Feature films are an even bigger gamble. "It's a quick hit," says Jim Silver, publisher of The Toy Book, a monthly trade publication.

Even a known quantity is no sure thing, as Babe: Pig In The City proved. According to Silver, the film was widely perceived as inappropriate for kids--ostensibly, its intended audience. "With the Babe sequel," says Silver, "[there were ] dark undertones." Likewise, "Small Soldiers was rated PG-13, which was the kiss of death."

And parents, a critical factor in the children's entertainment equation, took note. "You have to make children happy and get them engaged," sums up Viselman, "but you have to make the parents feel safe at the same time."

The Heat Is On

So should entrepreneurs fear for their own safety in the tricky world of trend-tracking? If our foray into children's licensing sends chills down your spine, then allow us to reassure you: Yes, there really is profit to be made from gauging what's hot. The secret to success seems to rest in targeting a good audience with an even better product.

"If you have a truly great product, it will find its way to the shelves," maintains Felton. "You may have to fight to get it there, but it will eventually happen."

Top Of The Tots

Which children's licensed properties are industry experts watching?

TV: Bear In The Big Blue House, Blue's Clues, CatDog, Little Bear, Scooby-Doo, Teletubbies

Movies: The Phantom Menace (the Star Wars prequel), Stuart Little, Toy Story 2

Attention All Innies!

By Victoria Neal

Forget the pain of piercing:'s "Belly Buttons" ($12) will be the hot product replacing all traces of lint this season. Ladybugs, flowers and smiley-face charms attached to hydro-foam, earplug-like inserts, fastened with a dab of nontoxic spirit gum, will be dotting the navels of girls of all ages and soothing the minds of pierce-reluctant parents and belonephobes alike. For more information, visit

Contact Sources

Adventure Publishing Co., (212) 575-4510, fax: (212) 575-4521,

The itsy bitsy Entertainment Company, 156 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10010, (212) 989-3660

License!, (212) 599-2700,

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