Meet the new force in children’s TV production: The Retailer

While it's premature to anoint them major players in the genre just yet, retailers are increasingly looking to the TV show format as an alternative way of promoting themselves to kids....
November 1, 1999

While it’s premature to anoint them major players in the genre just yet, retailers are increasingly looking to the TV show format as an alternative way of promoting themselves to kids.

‘It’s subliminal marketing,’ says Brian Levine, a producer at the Thousand Oaks, California-based studio Big Kid Productions, which created the educational tools-for-tots show Homer’s Workshop for Home Depot. The show left the airwaves in September after a one-year run.

The rationale for retailers entering TV, he adds, is the same as the principle that motivates McDonald’s to sell Happy Meals. ‘They don’t do it because they want to give away free toys. They do it because they know today’s kids are tomorrow’s customers. It’s good will,’ says Levine.

Stores creating kids entertainment as a way of brand-building is hardly a new trend. In 1939, as part of its Christmas promotion, Montgomery Ward Department Stores distributed free storybooks about a then-unknown reindeer named Rudolph. Retailers that use TV to achieve the same ends today are simply modernizing the concept.

For some, it is the only way they will use the medium to communicate their brand messages to kids. Toy chain FAO Schwarz, which has never done TV advertising in its 137-year history-unless you count the many cameos its stores have made in films, including the 1988 Tom Hanks flick Big-is making its debut on TV with FAO Schwarz Extraordinary Kids later this month.

‘We’ve found that this kind of media has been an effective way for us to market the FAO brand, especially in making our stores holiday destinations for travelers. We feel the TV show will help us build on that awareness,’ says Brooke Adkins, VP of marketing at FAO Schwarz. Co-produced with Abrams Gentile Entertainment, the program offers profiles of overachieving kids and tweens who excel in the arts, sports or business. FAOXK has been sold to CBS’s Early Show with Bryant Gumble, where it will air in 10-minute segments beginning November 15. FAO is planning to sell the show to a broadcaster, who will run the series in its entirety for spring 2000, says Adkins. According to Adkins, the chain is also considering creating a show around one of its toy properties-sources name Patrick the Pup, FAO’s line of plush puppies, as the upcoming hopeful. If the Patrick show is greenlit, it could function as a great marketing tool to drive sales of Patrick toys.

To be sure, the lure of merchandising riches is another reason why many retailers are thinking about the small screen these days.

‘If you have a show based on one of your proprietary characters that consumers want product for, then they can only get it at one place-your store. The potential revenue streams can be enormous. You’re talking home videos, consumer soft goods-it could work across a number of categories. That’s the upside,’ says Michael Tabakin, director of sales, promotions and licensing at Toys `R’ Us.

The downside? If the show tanks and you’re stuck with shelves full of merch you can’t move, it reflects negatively on your brand and will likely cut short the life span of the property. One retailer who has taken the plunge is Target. Snowden, the discount chain’s rotund holiday character that was first introduced in ’97, has already spawned two Christmas specials (both of which aired on CBS in `97 and `98) and a merchandising program covering plush, dolls, videos, apparel and CDs. A third Snowden special called Snowden’s Christmas, produced by Toronto-based toon studio Cuppa Coffee Animation, is set to air on CBS on December 3.

Whether the fact that Target is continuing to finance TV specials indicates its move into this kind of advertainment has been a success is difficult to determine. When contacted, license marketing manager for Target Stores John Haesler described sales for Snowden product as excellent, but wouldn’t elaborate further.

Merchandising sales figures is one area retailers can look at to assess the performance of their show, says Tabakin. The other key indicator involves the slightly murkier practice of measuring the increase in brand awareness.

On this score, results are mixed. The two Snowden specials, Snowden on Ice (`97) and Snowden on Ice: Raggedy Ann and Andy (`98) both placed third in their time slots, pulling in a 4.4 and 3.4 rating with the two to 11 demo, respectively. Homer’s Workshop, which aired in syndication in 80% of the U.S. from `98 to `99, averaged a 1.2 rating.

For Toys `R’ Us’s Tabakin, at least, so far the hit-or-miss nature of trying to create a successful TV show has proven too risky a proposition (although he adds the company continues to review entertainment applications for its corporate mascot, Geoffrey the Giraffe.)

‘The cachet that a doll or a brand has without TV is very special. Take Barbie, for example. Why hasn’t Mattel created a show for that doll? You can just imagine how many proposals they’ve received over the years. [It's because] at the end of the day, you’re at the mercy of how the show turns out,’ says Tabakin.

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