The beak is back! Though it’s hard to imagine he ever left. For nearly 60 years, children the world over have been trying to emulate the slaphappy bird’s trademark cackle. Now, with a new show set to air in the fall, another generation of kids will get the chance to do the same.
Universal’s decision to dust off Woody’s wings is consistent with the current trend among studios of reviving classic cartoon properties. Lucky for Woody fans, Universal felt he was blessed with possessing those qualities-a multigenerational, pansexual and international appeal-that cause studio execs to anoint a property with the ‘classic’ adjective. According to the most recent Cartoon Q report, an index of a character’s popularity, conducted by Manhasset, New York-based Marketing Evaluations Inc., Woody Woodpecker scored the highest overall Q Score of any Universal-owned kids character, with 33 points, a number Universal is determined to make good on.
‘He is one of the characters that the public has identified with Universal for the longest time,’ says Cynthia Cleveland, president of merchandising and licensing for the Universal Consumer Products Group. ‘Right now, we’re speaking to nearly every division at Universal to see how we can capitalize on his popularity.’
Central to Universal’s plans for growing the Woody brand is the new show, Woody Woodpecker & Friends, which debuts in the 8:30 a.m. time slot on Saturdays on Fox Kids Network beginning in September. For this incarnation, Woody’s penchant for slapstick comedy remains intact, but Universal is introducing some changes. Two characters-Knothead and Splinter, Woody’s niece and nephew, respectively-will be making their first appearances. As for Winnie, Woody’s love interest from the early cartoons, she’ll be adopting more of an independent, `90s woman persona, says Cleveland. Even Woody is undergoing something of a personality tweaking.
‘We are going to make him a little more edgy, a little more Jim Carrey-ish [in attitude], because we think that has an appeal to today’s kids,’ says Cleveland. To accompany the launch of the new show, Universal is assembling a licensing program that covers most major categories-toys (Equity Toys), home furnishings (Star Jars), interactive games (Optimum Interactive), apparel (Gotcha Sportswear and S. Goldberg), and gifts and stationery (Creative Expressions), to name a few. As with the show, the primary target demographic for the licensed products will be boys and girls six to 12, with tweens and adults being the secondary targets, says Cleveland. In addition, Universal has established a number of promotional partnerships, one of which includes a QSR deal with Hardee’s to produce four Woody premiums that will be distributed through Hardee’s Funmeal packs.
With 27 licensees on board so far, Cleveland describes the strategy behind the licensing program as being conservative, because ‘we don’t want too much merchandise to be out in the market until the new show has developed a following.’ To help attract that audience, Universal has canceled the U.S. broadcast of all the old cartoons, though they continue to run in syndication outside of the U.S.
Woody Woodpecker first came to life, in 1941, in a theatrical short that legendary animator Walter Lantz produced for Universal. Lantz had gotten the inspiration for the character while honeymooning with his new bride, actor Gracie Stafford, at a lakeside cottage earlier the same year. They had been disturbed by something knocking on the roof of their cottage. When they went outside to investigate, they came upon a woodpecker drilling holes into the shingles of their roof. Whenever it would fly away, it would make a noisy squawking sound. Stafford convinced her husband that the bird provided the basis for a great cartoon, although in an interview given to the Los Angeles Times in 1994, Lantz admitted he had been skeptical about the cartoon’s chances for success. In the ensuing years, Lantz created 197 Woody shorts and 350 Woody Woodpecker cartoon shows, with the last episode being produced in 1979. A modest number of licenses had built up around the old cartoons, especially in Japan, where he had been used as a spokescharacter for a number corporations, such as Sumitomo Life Insurance and Sumitomo Visa.
The worldwide appeal of Woody to licensees and fans is all the more impressive, considering that most of the original cartoons were never translated into the language of the country in which they were being shown, a phenomenon Cleveland attributes in part to Woody’s laugh. ‘It’s an international laugh,’ says Cleveland. ‘You don’t need to understand the English language to understand that.’