BBC plunges into licensing with both feet

During the late 1990s, the BBC's U.K. licensing business grew from annual retail sales of US$95 million to US$475 million. BBC Worldwide director of children's Mark Johnstone expects that figure to rise to US$1.5 billion during the next five years-bringing home...
September 1, 1999

During the late 1990s, the BBC’s U.K. licensing business grew from annual retail sales of US$95 million to US$475 million. BBC Worldwide director of children’s Mark Johnstone expects that figure to rise to US$1.5 billion during the next five years-bringing home revenues of US$80 million a year to the pubcaster.

Teletubbies was-and still is-a major part of that growth. But Worldwide is confident it can recreate that success with its latest preschool project Tweenies, a co-production with Tell-Tale Productions launching on BBC 2 in the fall.

Like Tubbies, Tweenies has been commissioned in bulk (260 x 30 minutes) and will have a guaranteed daily slot on BBC 2. Its primary goal is teaching kids social skills, language, literacy and numeracy through the activities of four multicolored, costumed characters, a dog and two adult helpers.

The show’s reserved slot and high visibility has allowed the BBC to excel in the merchandising arena. ‘You need an idea that catches the audience’s imagination and a strong marketing campaign,’ says Johnstone. ‘But the broadcast platform has also been a real benefit.’

Johnstone says the BBC’s licensing people were involved at the earliest stages of Tweenies development, ‘but it was not a case of the tail wagging the dog. We had our input during the commissioning process, and we work with the producers at Tell-Tale to see how we can generate better revenue from licensing without affecting the editorial integrity of the show.’

Although Tweenies was only commissioned last fall, major licensing partners such as Hasbro, Spearmark and Ravensburger have already signed on, and there will be product available six weeks after September’s broadcast launch-just in time to build up to the peak pre-Christmas season. This contrasts the situation for most U.K. properties, which are forced to wait until at least season two before the major merchandising drive.

A number of factors contributed to the speed of the turnaround, says Johnstone. The first was that ‘our business partners were prepared to take more risks because, since Teletubbies, we have built up a consistent and positive dialogue.’

Secondly, ‘Worldwide’s confidence in the project, even before filming started, was crucial in our dealings with licensees,’ he says.

Finally, BBC Worldwide ‘sourced and developed our own merchandise,’ says Johnstone. ‘This meant the BBC could handle product development and licensee appointments in parallel-rather than one after the other.’

This approach, likely to be replicated, is ‘more commercially efficient. It’s quicker, gives us creative control and allows us to bring more consistency to our product ranges around the world.’

Tweenies is the BBC’s biggest licensing hope, but Johnstone anticipates that new shows like Angelmouse and Yoho Ahoy will be licensing successes as well. Worldwide is also developing a marketing program for Robbie the Reindeer-mascot for the BBC’s charity fundraiser Comic Relief.

For an older age group, Wallace and Gromit continues to do well in the gifts market-particularly in Japan. Worldwide has also identified new animation series Rotten Ralph as a potential licensing hit for kids ages five to nine, while Miami 7 (which begins airing as S Club 7 on Fox Family in the U.S. this November) looks well-placed to crack the international teen market.

In the case of Rotten Ralph, a co-production with Italtoons, ‘the principal character is visually strong and clever,’ says Johnstone. ‘We see it as something that can translate to a range of products such as housewares, confectionery and food. Our challenge is to introduce Ralph’s humor and mischief into the products.’

Johnstone believes most people are ‘pragmatic enough to know that a Tubbies only comes around once in awhile,’ but he believes ‘there are still significant revenues to be had from licensing. The percentage of toys based on licensed characters is growing consistently in the U.K. and U.S.’

Tubbies made US$200 million at U.K. retail in year one and over US$300 million in year two. While Johnstone expects it to plateau, that will not be because of Tweenies. Both are aimed at the preschool set, but Tubbies aims for ages one and up, while Tweenies sets its sights higher with the over-three crowd. ‘The two are complementary and will work alongside each other,’ he says. ‘To prevent Tubbies from being a two-year wonder, we need to keep innovating.’

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