In developing a TV series inspired by the 1997 animated feature Hercules, Tad Stones, Disney’s Hercules creator and executive producer of the show at Walt Disney Television Animation, chose to depict the character of Hercules as a teenager, before he attained the demigod status he enjoyed in the film. The move to call the show a ‘mid-quel’ was designed to give Disney’s Hercules more kid-friendly storylines, according to creators. Half-mortal, half-god, the teen Hercules faces the awkward trials of high school while attempting to control his superhuman strength.
The series, which leads in to Disney’s One Saturday Morning block on ABC starting September 12, will air at 8 a.m. ABC will run 13 exclusive episodes, and Buena Vista Television launched 52 exclusive episodes of Disney’s Hercules in syndication on August 31.
‘We’ve looked at what would be the best way to take Hercules and make it a hit,’ says Stones. ‘Instead of doing what we did in the movie, we wanted to deal with the character when he’s flawed and still has room to grow. He’s more fallible-less of a superhuman,’ he says. One aspect of the movie the producers want to preserve, however, is its humor. ‘The feature film really pushed comedy. Our stories have plenty of heart, but we’re going for the laughs,’ notes Stones.
One technique used to maximize comedic potential was the series’ roster of 166 guest stars-the largest cast for one season of an animated series, according to Stones-including Tate Donovan as Hercules and James Woods as Hades (both reprising their roles from the movie), Sandra Bernhard, Jason Alexander, Jennifer Aniston, Lisa Kudrow, Heather Locklear, Wayne Newton and William Shatner.
An additional benefit of the extensive celebrity cast is the promotional value of all the celebrity names. ‘It gets you placement, gets you talked about,’ says Stones. ‘[Celebrity participation] speaks to station managers, and gets images in newspaper and TV.’ Disney hopes that a high level of media attention surrounding the show will help to differentiate the series from two additional Hercules-based series on competing networks this fall: Young Hercules on Fox Kids and the syndicated series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, both of which are live action. ‘I don’t believe there’s any negative crossover,’ says Stones. ‘Animation is still classically the medium of choice for kids.’
Targeting an audience of kids age two to 11, the series is expected to capitalize on Disney’s One Saturday Morning’s success with this demo. From its inception in September 1997, the block grew ABC’s kids ratings by 40% in the 8:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. time slot, according to Sheraton Kalouria, director of marketing for ABC children’s programming. ‘Leading off the entire lineup gives you an idea of how much faith we have in it as a property, as well as its compatibility with Disney’s One Saturday Morning,’ he says. The property bumps Disney’s 101 Dalmatians: The Series, previously in the 8 a.m. time slot, to a time after the block.
Following this placement choice, Kalouria says the marketing strategy behind Disney’s Hercules is to tell kids normally tuning in to the block at 8:30 a.m. to get up earlier. The show is also promoted in a way that highlights the fact that it is different from the movie. ‘This isn’t just a superhero show,’ notes Kalouria. ‘It deals with situations kids themselves are facing.’ This idea will be communicated through on-air promos, advertising on other networks, print and radio advertising. All advertising materials will include the show’s logo, which utilizes the same typeface as the feature film combined with the script Disney tag, with which marketers at Disney hope to leverage the Hercules brand, Kalouria explains.
ABC offers the show a unique promotional advantage due to the fact that it runs on-air promos for its Saturday morning kids shows during prime time. During the teen-oriented TGIF block on Friday nights, Disney’s Hercules will be promoted, as well as in a one-time, half-hour TGIF special on September 11 that will preview all that’s coming up for fall on the various kids shows.
At retail, ABC joins with Toys `R’ Us/Kids `R’ Us for a September on-air/off-air event in which children enter to win a truckload of toys. Special displays and Toys `R’ Us fun book giveaways in stores will also be dedicated to Disney’s Hercules, as will in-store radio promotions. Kalouria expects these promotional efforts to have a wide impact. ‘We always feel like any way we can connect with [kids'] lives in another way is a plus,’ he notes. Disney employed its corporate synergy capabilities to coordinate a giant billboard at the MGM studios, a Disney’s One Saturday Morning activity book to be distributed at The Disney Stores nationwide and a video presence at both Disney stores and theme parks. As for licensing and merchandising, those programs will be undertaken after the show has had a few successful seasons on-air, Kalouria asserts.