Some 1,600 exhibitors have their showrooms primed and ready with the latest toys as they wait for the more than 20,000 buyers who are expected to come to New York City for the 1997 American International Toy Fair. Increasingly, toy manufacturers and film and television studios are teaming up to develop products based on licensed properties, which now make up as much as 50 percent of all toys. Our special report on Toy Fair looks at how the studios and toy companies are working their way through these collaborations.
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Kenn Viselman, president of New York-based The itsy bitsy Entertainment Company
When parents demand nonviolent products for their kids, the industry would be wise to listen
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As I write this article, I am reminded of the climactic scene in the motion picture Network. The newsman sticks his head out the window and screams, ‘I’m mad as hell and I can’t take it anymore.’ I believe this is the attitude of every caregiver of small children in America.
For the past several years, Hollywood has increased the amount of gratuitous violence and negative imagery in its feature films and television programming. In addition, the amount of sexually explicit references during the family hour (8 to 9 p.m.) has more than doubled over the past 10 years and has quadrupled over the past 20 years as reported on ABC’s PrimeTime Live.
All that is about to change. We are entering a new world a world with a V-chip and tougher FCC rulings, a world that puts the parent in charge and no longer relies on Hollywood to do the right thing. Caregivers are demanding alternatives to their children’s entertainment, both on and off the screen.
In the past 10 years, the toy industry and the entertainment world have become more closely linked. In the early ’80s, only 10 percent of the toys created were based on licensed characters. In both 1994 and 1995, more than 50 percent of the toys created in this US$17-billion industry were based on licensed-character merchandise. And the trend continues to grow. Many motion-picture studios have established ‘joint ventures’ with major toy companies as outlets for their products. The reason? Entertainment-based projects are perceived to be less risky than generic-concept toys due to their huge promotional budgets (Disney’s budget for Hercules is rumored to be over US$150 million) and the broad exposure of television. Sometimes this process pays off really big, as with Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and Jurassic Park. As a means of recouping the huge production costs, the ancillary merchandise is still geared at young children despite their adult themes.
This is the most offensive concept for caregivers. Parents have been asking themselves, ‘Why are the studios making products that conflict with the way I want to bring up my children?’ and ‘What can I do to protect my child?’ Recently, they discovered the big secret that the industry has been keeping to itself: the caregiver is ultimately in control. If parents do not want toy companies creating toys that promote violence or studios making aggressive movies, they should not buy them. Eventually, the industry will have no choice but to change its products to accommodate the consumer.
This past Christmas, the toy most sought in America was not a violence-promoting superhero with ‘Aggression’ as its middle name. Instead, the nation waited in lines, begged, borrowed and stole in hopes of finding a Sesame Street Tickle Me Elmo doll.
Why was this such a surprise to the toy industry? Parents have been begging for good, wholesome toys, especially toys that will somehow be an extension of a positive television experience for their child. Nevertheless, the retail community was stunned by the overwhelming demand.
The success of the children’s video market is another indicator of the power of caregivers. Here is a form of children’s entertainment that allows caregivers to exercise greater control over what their children watch.
In addition, as a result of consumer demand, there has been tremendous growth in the area of specialty store retailing. Chains of retail stores that truly cater to the concerns of parents and their children’s early developmental needs are opening up all over the country. Retailers like Zany Brainy, Noodle Kidoodle and Building Blocks are building their businesses with exceptionally high-quality products and nonviolent licensed-character toys. In these outlets, parents can shop without worrying about their children finding a violence-promoting action hero with post-nuclear power.
As these retailers and others like them continue to grow and become a dominant force in the marketplace, the need for cooperation between the manufacturer and the caregiver becomes more apparent. Even Toys ‘R’ Us, the toy retailing giant, is changing the design and product mix of its stores to imitate specialty retailers, which address the will power, determination and resolve of the concerned parent.
Simply spending millions of dollars to promote a toy will no longer ensure its success. Manufacturers will have to respond to an ever-increasing group of parents demanding high-quality entertainment that fosters a feeling of safety and well-being for children.
As for television, the jury is still out over the new FCC rulings. Network television programmers are concerned that wholesome, educational television will not be commercial. Television producers are running to create their interpretations of FCC-friendly programming, hoping to benefit from the new rulings.
And, thanks to the V-chip, the caregiver can now say, ‘I’m glad as hell that my children don’t have to watch it anymore.’
Tots TV, The itsy bitsy Entertainment Company’s latest project is currently airing on more than 260 PBS stations in the U.S.