Special Report on Reaching Girls: How hit girls shows become licensing coups

Even though the female demographic represents half the children's viewing audience, studio executives and television programmers continue to consider shows aimed at girls as niche programming. But as this coming season suggests, change appears to be on the horizon. Several new...
August 1, 1997

Even though the female demographic represents half the children’s viewing audience, studio executives and television programmers continue to consider shows aimed at girls as niche programming. But as this coming season suggests, change appears to be on the horizon. Several new TV shows and a number of upcoming features have girls starring in lead roles. And in the CD-ROM business, a series of products are finding particular popularity among females. The following report looks at how the entertainment and marketing communities are reaching out to girls.

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Clueless, Sabrina, The Teenage Witch and Saved by the Bell: The New Class are three teen shows that skew similarly they’re runaway successes with girls and tweens. Yet their licensing and merchandising campaigns are wildly diverse. Different product lines have emerged from properties targeting the same audience because of the unique licensing and merchandising opportunities each studio saw and developed.

Setting trends

While airing on ABC on Friday nights, Clueless pulled in an impressive 15.0 rating among girls age six to 11, and was number one in the kids and teens demographic in its 9:30 to 10 p.m. time slot. The show received a 22-episode order in June from UPN, where it will nab a Friday night slot. Initially, the show’s licensing possibilities seemed endless, but a tightly focused campaign has evolved.

Debbi Petrasek, vice president of strategic property development at Viacom Consumer Products, says the Clueless line had unique advantages going in.

‘Clueless had its roots in the motion picture, which so many of the merchandising executives and buyers at retail found to be this wealth of fashion inspiration,’ Petrasek notes.

At the show’s earliest juncture, merchandisers for the dual-gender show had to distinguish whether the licensed goods would target boys or girls, because attempting to reach both is usually considered a losing proposition. Because of the obvious fashion possibilities, girls won out, and an apparel branding effort got under way. The viability of a trend/attitude/lifestyle focus was confirmed when Petrasek’s team discovered that the top merchandising executive at Bloomingdale’s had issued a memo making Clueless required viewing for all his buyers and merchandisers. ‘That’s something that you really can’t manufacture,’ says Petrasek. Viacom began signing on licensees for cosmetics, accessories, electronic organizers, phones and school supplies.

‘There are lots of shows where they have cute girls wearing cute clothes, but Clueless was different. This broke through to a different level of fashion trend-setting,’ Petrasek notes.

Not all Clueless licensing was fashion-oriented, however. ‘Mattel felt that the characters had great enough appeal and were perfect for fashion dolls. That’s a license that was very character-based, but again it still incorporated all the fashion and all the color and the attitude [of the fashion line],’ says Petrasek.

Working like magic

Viacom’s Sabrina, The Teenage Witch, which airs on ABC on Friday nights at 9 p.m., is consistently rating number one among girls age six to 11 as it enters its second season. The stellar kids Q Score for its star, Melissa Joan Hart, has provided an extra kick to a campaign that already revolved around character.

Petrasek says that in developing the Sabrina merchandising strategy, ‘we talked a lot about the message. While Clueless is about attitude and lifestyle, Sabrina is much more about a character and logo.’

Merchandisers determined that the products should target an audience younger than the Clueless audience, which made dolls even more viable.

‘The name of the show highlights a particular character, unlike Clueless, which is more of a descriptor,’ Petrasek notes.

Storyline figured prominently in the strategy, creating opportunities for items with ‘magical’ abilities to be developed. ‘It’s one thing to show a visual effect on television. But it’s our responsibility with licensees like Hasbro we worked with them a lot to incorporate magic,’ explains Petrasek. As a result, the toy maker developed not only a levitating bed, but a way to make [Sabrina's cat] Salem appear at the foot. Other magical aspects that worked their way into product and packaging included glitter and ‘celestial’ elements, such as the sun, the moon and the stars.

In addition to the toy line, licensees for electronics, CD-ROMs, costumes, school supplies and lunch kits were signed on.

Ringing a bell with girls

Two premises underlie all of the licensing for Saved by the Bell: The New Class, which rates number one for female teens in its 11 a.m. Saturday morning time slot on NBC.

‘First of all, kids buying licensed goods are sometimes younger than a show’s actual viewers,’ says Albert Spevak, vice president, marketing, production business affairs for NBC Studios. Secondly, he says, shows that target both boys and girls, as the TNBC shows do, are forced to become gender-specific when undertaking a licensing campaign. The Saved by the Bell: The New Class program, which from the start was primarily geared towards girls, was marked by predictable hits as well as some very unexpected turns.

Not surprisingly for a show that has some of the top teen hunks in television, posters and T-shirts, which ‘continue the experience of the show,’ sold well, as did stickers, trading cards and memorabilia. Two categories that experienced booming sales caught executives by surprise, according to Spevak.

‘Board games exceeded everyone’s expectations,’ he notes. ‘In the board game, the decision between boys and girls had to be made, and we were convinced by [board game licensee] Pressman that they should clearly only be targeted to girls.’

The dating-oriented game, which specifies on the box that it is for girls between certain ages, has continued to be a retail success.

‘The merchandise follows the show,’ Spevak explains. ‘If a show d’esn’t become part of the cultural lexicon of the audience, it d’esn’t have these marketing opportunities.’

The second surprise hit was a paperback series published by Simon & Schuster, featuring novelizations utilizing Saved by the Bell: The New Class characters. ‘When you see you’re getting a response, you note this very quickly and respond,’ Spevak says. ‘Kids who buy merchandise make a statement to their peers that this is something that is cool. This is key to merchandising to teens: what is cool.’

Other lines connected to the show were ‘one-shot deals,’ including a girls doll line, which sold out quickly, he notes.

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