John Claster has made an indelible mark in the children’s syndication market. As president of a company his parents founded more than 40 years ago, Claster has demonstrated an unwavering commitment to children’s television. In 1968, he started his career by working in the promotions and publicity department at Claster Television for its flagship show, Romper Room. In 1969, he moved to merchandising, a year later, he took charge of the company’s sales, and in 1973, when his father retired, he became the president.
At that time, Claster Television’s main claim to fame was Romper Room. Nearly 25 years later, under John Claster’s watchful eye, the company has become one of the foremost syndicators in children’s television and handled such children’s programs as Fred Flintstone and Friends, Transformers, My Little Pony, G.I. Joe, Muppet Babies, Ghostbusters and Casper. Currently, Claster Television’s lineup includes such programs as Beast Wars, All Dogs Go to Heaven and Mummies Alive!.
While it may not be so clear what Claster plans to do when he steps down as president of Claster Television at the end of this year, what is clear is that he will be missed.
This month, in KidScreen’s ‘The Champions Series,’ John Claster discusses children’s television and his nearly 30 years in the industry.
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Q. With your involvement in children’s television, and through your family’s association with Romper Room, your experience goes back to the very beginnings of children’s television. Are there any enduring truisms about the way children are entertained through television? What has changed over the years?
A. The biggest change that I have noticed over the last 20 years is that children are more sophisticated today. At a much younger age, children are leaving animation and traditional children’s programming. Girls are out of it at almost the age of eight and boys are leaving it at nine-and-a- half and they’re going to situation comedies or Beverly Hills, 90210 or Party of Five. They’re more into music at a younger age than they were years ago, they’re more into fashion than they were. They have a very large influence over parents on a lot of purchases in the family. They have strong opinions on what cars are cool and not cool and why. They’re very familiar with a broad range of entertainment mediums that didn’t even exist 20 years ago. Cable barely existed 20 years ago, and now you’ve got the computer, and you’ve got the Internet, and you’ve got CD-ROMs.
The other big thing is fragmentation. That change and the children’s sophistication have definitely challenged the creators of programming. And you see examples of it all the time, of how difficult it is to capture children’s interest. One situation I can look at is when Smurfs was a huge success for NBC. As long as Smurfs was the anchor of NBC’s Saturday morning, NBC did really, really well. But when Smurfs lost some of its steam, you saw the network diminish in some of its success [with children's programming]. It’s hard to do hits. But you have to hope you can capture lightning in a bottle that way.
Q. What are the enduring truisms about children themselves?
A. The biggest truisms I see holding are for preschool children. To some degree, the sophistication of children can only reach down so far. There just is a chronology to all of this that you can’t violate. A two-year-old, a three-year-old, a four-year-old, they’re going to be a little more sophisticated, a little more aware, but they can’t grow up too fast up to that age. Barney, for example, reminds me of our Romper Room program except there’s a green and purple dinosaur instead of a teacher. But the things that are on Barney, or the things that are on Arthur, are attracting young children. It’s very soft programming. It’s very similar to what attracted kids many years ago. And preschool children still like to see other children on air.
And I’ll tell you one other truism, and this is true for older kids also. Kids will gravitate towards trends. Kids find them really fast. I remember when Pop Rocks [candy] was successful. When kids on the East Coast, who couldn’t get this stuff, found out how popular it was on the West Coast, they started getting them bootlegged into the East Coast in about a month. Kids figure out very early on where the trends are. One of the differences is that the trends come and go a little faster. And it’s amazing how fast they go from coast to coast. Actually, it’s amazing how fast they go around the world now. Power Rangers is a good example. That became popular worldwide very quickly.
And one final truism is that kids want good stories and good characters with a little uniqueness thrown in. If you start with good characters and good stories, you are well ahead of the game. Combine that with a unique twist, like we’ve done with Beast Wars, and it’s a very good formula for success.
Q. How do you see the roles of promotions, licensing and merchandising changing over the next few years? Will they affect the overall children’s television programming product?
A. I don’t necessarily think they’re going to affect the product children see. I think what will happen is that those three elements, which are not part of the content of the show, but which surround the show, will become more and more important. It has always been true that, when you have a megahit program, all of those other things are working very well around it.
One of the things that I think is going to become more difficult is creating successful licenses. You’ve got so many distribution outlets for children’s programming that you need to find greater audience mass in order to have a huge hit, and getting that in the world of fragmentation is harder and harder.
Q. Has the alliance between creative and marketing hurt or helped the overall product?
A. I think that the alliance between creative and marketing is not as new or of any greater importance today than it was 20 years ago in terms of helping or hurting product.
For a long, long time, I think it has been true that people who create programming have always had an eye towards the licensing area. And that is true in public broadcasting and in commercial broadcasting. Sesame Street was one of the most heavily licensed programs in the history of children’s programming. Did the alliance between creative and marketing hurt that product? I don’t think so. I think it actually fostered the experience for children because they got to have their favorite characters available to them in a number of different venues.
Another thing that can be important is whether you can tap into something that’s hot in the kid culture. For example, currently, you look at Goosebumps or Are You Afraid of the Dark?, those are tapping into the whole scary aspect for children. But that’s always been there. Kids always like scary stories. They touch a nerve and Goosebumps plays off a very successful literary situation.
Q. Can you tell us what’s been your biggest high so far?
A. I’m fortunate that there have been several. One of the biggest highs was early in my career when I got to work with my parents, who were still in the company for the first five years that I was working. That was really enjoyable. They were really good people and very bright people and I learned a great deal from them. Romper Room started when I was seven years old and then finally getting to work with [my parents], even though I’d never planned to do it, was enjoyable. A second high was when we were so successful with the Bowling for Dollars program. It was a huge hit for our company and got us into time periods that we had never been in before. And we had a 10-year run with that program. Another one was when we were involved with Sunbow Productions on The Great Space Coaster in the early eighties. We had that show on the air for six years. It won a Peabody award, it won an ACT award and was very well received by parents, educators and children alike. I think we made a good contribution to children’s programming with that program.
Our whole entry into animation has been very gratifying. We’ve had a lot of success with that. Starting with Transformers and G.I. Joe and My Little Pony, then working with the Hensons on Muppet Babies and working with MGM on their properties, like All Dogs Go To Heaven, or the Harvey comics people and the Universal people on Casper and Baby Huey, that’s been very exciting stuff. We’ve been very fortunate to have had a lot of success with shows over a long period of time and that aspect has been a real high.
Q. And what’s been the biggest disappointment?
A. The biggest disappointment I can tell you was in the early eighties. We were working on a project with Tom Griffin and Joe Bacal and Sunbow. The project involved Tina Turner. We had Tina Turner under contract to do a rock video show and this was about three months before her career absolutely exploded. Unfortunately, we hit a barter marketplace. In June 1980, we were going to launch it, [but] there was no advertising money to be found for barter programming. So we had to pull the plug on the project, and literally, two or three months later, Tina Turner had a hit song and her career went through the roof. If we had launched that show, we would have had her under contract. That was the biggest disappointment.
Q. When you look at the up-and-comers in your business, what do you see that impresses you?
A. I think that when you talk about up-and-comers, some of the people producing programming for Nickelodeon have done something that is really good. They’ve tried to stay on the cutting edge of programming. They’ve tried to lead trends if they can, or catch the leading edge of trends. They’ve done some pretty sophisticated, pretty edgy programming. Fox has done a couple of those: Life With Louie and Bobby’s World. Those kinds of things are interesting ventures when you try to get on the leading edge and try to be a little bit ahead of the curve, as opposed to just behind the curve. As an example, when we did Beast Wars this year, the 3-D CGI that was used by Alliance and Mainframe in producing the show was real cutting edge for kids. They liked the production technique, along with the good story and the good characters. Unique areas, cutting edge areas, those places are where the up-and-comers need to be.
Q. What do you predict lies ahead for the children’s entertainment industry?
A. I think that we’re looking at a couple of things. One is that we have a pretty good idea who the major players are going to be now. I think that those players will try to consolidate their positions-and when I say major players, I mean Nickelodeon, Fox, Warner, Cartoon Network, Disney and PBS. And it’s pretty clear that those are the active players in the children’s arena. I think they’ll try to consolidate their gains.
The other big question is what’s going to happen in the computer world. I see the computer world pushing into younger and younger age groups. As kids get more involved with computers and as the computer world gets more involved with kids, it’ll probably push down into the eight-year-old age group in fairly significant numbers. It will be interesting to see how that unfolds. That’s not to say that the major players won’t also push into the Internet world and try to attract children that way. That will again create additional fragmentation with broadcasting and with cable. So that’s what I see. It’s a very different world, and the change has occurred pretty dramatically in a short space of time. If you look at five years ago compared to now, there’s been an incredible shift of where the power centers are in children’s programming.
Q. How are you preparing yourself for what lies ahead?
A. As you know, I’m stepping down from my current position. My feeling on preparing myself for what lies ahead is that it depends on what I’m going to do. If I’m going to stay in the children’s area, I think that you need to really focus on the things that make a really successful program. And to try to find franchises that address that need and address those guidelines. Beyond that, it just depends. There are a lot of things I have been involved in over the years, so I don’t know that I would necessarily just pigeonhole what I’m going to do.
THE JOHN CLASTER THEY KNOW
Executive vice-president, Saatchi & Saatchi North America
I must confess that I had hoped that I would never be asked to write this piece on John Claster. Having to write this means that he will no longer be a competitor of mine-something that I am not pleased to acknowledge. In a business where integrity, honesty, fulfilling one’s commitments and dealing with people in a frank and honest manner is in short supply, losing John Claster is not a particularly pleasant thing to contemplate.
In my opinion, John Claster has been one of the true class individuals in our industry. A student of our business, he always told you what he thought, and what he thought was always communicated with great insight and intelligence.
He will be missed.
Chairman, DIC Entertainment
G.I. John-A Real American Hero
Memo to: G.I. John
From: Supreme Commander
It gives me great pleasure to salute your exemplary service during the last 25 years in the children’s television business.
Few people can point to the consistent job and many successful campaigns you have waged.
You have shown us all that when things are difficult, you’ve got to get tough. In a business that oftentimes has questionable ethics, you have shown you’ve got to stand tall when it comes down to the wire. At the same time, you have demonstrated how to play rough when you cross the line of fire. You’ve taught us you’ve got to have guts to stand for your rights, and you’ve got to do the fighting with all of your might. Throughout it all, you have kept the target straight ahead in your sight.
(G.I. John is America’s top-secret mobile strike force syndication team.
The mission: to defend freedom by providing quality television for children.
The threat: Cobra-an evil organization bent on distributing bad television for kids.
The battle cry: GO JOHN!)
John, we will miss you, but your legend will always be with us. You are a real American Hero.
*Alan G. Hassenfeld
Chairman and CEO, Hasbro
Alan G. Hassenfeld, chairman and CEO of Hasbro, which owns Claster Television, fondly recalls a business trip to Japan with Claster in which the two boarded a train in Tokyo, bound for Yokohama, in an effort to play tennis with a client. Hassenfeld declined to elaborate on all the funny things that happened to them along the way, so one can only assume the trip was a comedy of errors.
Vice-president and general manager,, UPN 20/WDCA-TV, Washingto, D.C.
John grew a family business with style, integrity and good humor. The kids business is losing a ‘gentleman among thieves.’
Executive vice president, claster television and senior vice president, programming, Hasbro
I think we’ll see John active in children’s entertainment over a long period of time doing different kinds of things. John has been a big contributor in the world of children’s entertainment with his integrity in creating that world, with his belief that children are supreme, that you must supply great characters and storytelling or you will not succeed. He’s been a real innovator, both in creating children’s programming and in thinking of ways to partner with the TV stations.
What I would say to John: You’ve always said to us, ‘less is more.’ But I think in your next ventures, you will be more creative, more fun, more innovative and of course, more intense and more caring.