Steady as she goes: Brits take baby steps into the U.S. market

Getting British kids shows onto U.S. broadcast platforms is a tough task. So it comes as no surprise that the number of U.S. video breakouts for U.K. properties can be counted on one hand....
July 1, 1999

Getting British kids shows onto U.S. broadcast platforms is a tough task. So it comes as no surprise that the number of U.S. video breakouts for U.K. properties can be counted on one hand.

Britt Allcroft’s Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends, Ragdoll’s Teletubbies, the BBC’s Noddy in Toyland and Nick Park’s Oscar-winning duo Wallace & Gromit are the most obvious titles to have cracked the big time in North America. With Park’s project an admirable exception, the above list reflects the U.K.’s inherent strength in preschool shows.

Various factors explain the lack of profile for Brit shows in the U.S. video retail market. The first is the lack of available space on shelves. In preschool, for example, one local observer estimates that 80% to 85% of the market is in the hands of half a dozen properties.

Another factor is that U.K. hopes of a U.S. video hit are heavily reliant on television shows. Unlike the U.S., there are few U.K.-produced theatrical releases aimed at kids. Those that do exist tend to have been made for a TV market, and lack the marketing muscle associated with cinema.

A final factor is that the U.K. preschool boom is a relatively recent phenomenon. Although Thomas and the Teletubbies blazed a trail, HIT’s Kipper and Bob the Builder, Granada’s Tom & Vicky, ITEL’s Animal Shelf, Henson’s Mopatop’s Shop, the BBC’s The Tweenies and Pearson’s Hilltop Hospital are too early in their life cycle to have yet made a mark in U.S. ancillary markets.

As a general rule, properties will not fly on video in the U.S. unless they have substantial exposure on television. The classic success story, Thomas the Tank Engine, has now been in the market for 10 years, airing first on PBS and then on Fox Family.

According to David Jacobs in Britt Allcroft’s New York office, a total of 24 Thomas titles have sold in excess of 10 million units. At any one time, there are five to 10 titles at retail. ‘The key to this success is having a great show and the right support on different platforms,’ says Jacobs.

While TV kick-started the Thomas phenomenon, other platforms have played their part in reinforcing the property. ‘Thomas has sold 20 million books in the U.S. and as a toy line, has great play value,’ says Jacobs. ‘That helps us maintain a synergistic approach.’

Ironically, as a property beds down, video can become the first point of entry for consumers, says Jacobs. ‘Parents trust Thomas. It is common for children to come to mature properties via the video first.’

HIT, which has an L.A. office, is also pushing a holistic marketing approach for animated series Kipper. Executive VP Dorian Langdon says the first Kipper video will appear in July courtesy of Hallmark Home Video. At the same time, there will be books from Harcourt Brace and a promotion with fast-food retailer Subway.

Kipper has rated so well on Nickelodeon that Langdon believes it could exceed one million video unit sales in the U.S. But he is still pragmatic. ‘When we launched Brambly Hedge, we had what looked like a well-conceived promotion from Hallmark Crayola. But it didn’t get the buy-in we expected.’ He anticipates relaunching Brambly Hedge through a more tightly controlled direct response campaign.

Although Langdon believes the market for episodic shows aimed at older kids is soft, he argues that consumers are receptive to U.K. preschool shows, as long as they have been reformatted to suit the market. This need for customization has encouraged some U.K.-based companies to leave the U.S. marketing job to North American partners.

ITEL, for example, has entrusted the marketing of Cosgrove Hall preschool series Animal Shelf to Kenn Viselman’s itsy bitsy Entertainment Company. ‘The U.S. is a tough market, and we have to be realistic about the effort involved in getting results,’ says ITEL head of home video Dominic Rayner. According to Rayner, ITEL wanted a partner that could ‘exploit the property in numerous ways. itsy bitsy has expertise in identifying properties that will work for the U.S. market.’

Importantly, Viselman has secured a broadcast platform for Animal Shelf on Fox Family, which is sure to boost its prospects. itsy’s progress will undoubtedly influence ITEL’s future approach with properties such as Foxbusters, 64 Zoo Lane and Little Grey Rabbit.

Carlton International head of video Simon Wheeler confirms Rayner’s sentiments by saying: ‘Although we have a U.S. office, we will often license U.S. rights to a third party. You need someone with the right market intelligence who is in a position to coordinate campaigns.’ Other shows with which Carlton has been involved underline the point. Family feature film The Canterville Ghost, for example, was co-produced with HBO and distributed on video by Canadian indie BFS.

Wheeler believes that hits like The Teletubbies have opened up new opportunities for U.K. players. As a result, Carlton International has reorganized so that video is part of its consumer products group, a move designed to make its ancillary marketing activities more focused.

Aside from Britt Allcroft, the major U.K. influence in the U.S. video market is BBC Worldwide, which has a New York office headed by Burton Cromer. While Noddy is shaping up well, the BBC’s biggest hit to date has been Wallace & Gromit, ‘which relied on a grass roots marketing campaign, not an ongoing broadcast platform,’ says Cromer. ‘Initial awareness came from the Oscars ceremony, when 60 million homes saw it on screen, and we used that to build the title.’ Public relations played an important part in building the property, says Cromer. The press loved the concept and gave it huge coverage when Park lost the original puppets in New York. By last year, W&G had sold more than one million units and could justify an ad campaign on high-end cable.

Other successes have included the BBC family film The Secret Garden, which, by riding on the back of the Warner version of the same story, sold ‘in the 100,000s,’ says Cromer. A 90-minute version of The Animals of Farthing Wood has also been released on the PBS label.

For the future, ‘the BBC’s ambition is extremely high in a variety of areas,’ says Cromer. The pubcaster’s next big preschool series, The Tweenies, is regarded as a potentially hot property-as is live-action series Miami 7, an Initial Television production which features a young pop group called S Club. ‘Miami 7 is focused on the international market while retaining the BBC’s level of quality,’ says Cromer. ‘Success will depend in part on its showing on Fox Family Channel and the performance of the band’s singles in the U.S. charts.’

Dream Street Production’s Dream Street and Henson’s Mopatop’s Shop are additional contenders for U.S. broadcast berths in the next two years, and Hollywood Ventures has just reversioned United/Link’s Slow Norris. However, what all this holds in store for the U.S. video market is unlikely to pan out for a few years yet.

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