Life after sales-why indies can’t sit on their promotional laurels as soon as the ink is dry

After landing a major U.S. outlet deal, today's indie producers shouldn't pause to celebrate just yet. Now is the time to redouble efforts to promote the show. Such was the case for Sony Wonder, when its two new toons Rainbow Fish...
February 1, 2000

After landing a major U.S. outlet deal, today’s indie producers shouldn’t pause to celebrate just yet. Now is the time to redouble efforts to promote the show. Such was the case for Sony Wonder, when its two new toons Rainbow Fish and Mega Babies got picked up by HBO Family and Fox Family respectively. Mega Babies launched on Fox Family in October for one week, then went back into creative development with hopes of returning to the channel sometime in the coming months. Rainbow Fish debuts on HBO Family’s airwaves on February 19, airing as part of its preschool block two times a day, seven days a week.

‘We’re promoting both shows at both the trade and consumer levels,’ says Sony Wonder VP of creative affairs Loris Kramer. In terms of plotting the best strategy, ‘We look at each property to determine the awareness we need to build,’ says Sony Wonder director of marketing Lisa Cappel. While consumer-targeted PR pumps up viewer awareness (thus ratings), trade-targeted media blitzes build excitement for the property amongst current and potential promotional partners. ‘The measure of our success is how viewers embrace the properties, as well as the synergies we are able to build between our short-term and long-term partners,’ Cappel notes.

But PR does not a hit property make. Networks foot the bill for multitiered promotions for their own properties-many approaching a feature film level-but outside producers can find themselves at the back of the line or on their own in terms of supporting their properties on a similar level. Only in the case when an outside show is an immediate runaway hit do networks necessarily pony up for mega promo costs.

However, Kramer says partners such as Fox Kids are more likely to be persuaded to contribute advertising and promotion dollars if their relationship with the indie studio is very strong.

One strategy that some producers have employed is offering to go Dutch with broadcast partners on ad campaigns and high-impact promotions.

The Jim Henson Company is another prodco that recognizes that its own promotion responsibilities do not end with the sale of a show. Whether it is a QSR deal, mall tour or retail promotion, Henson has done it all-both with network assistance and independently.

Around Farscape, an adventure series currently airing on the Sci Fi Channel that’s known for its special effects and innovative animatronic creatures, JHC created a CD-ROM promotion designed to help drive viewers to the network. The disk, launching this month, contains additional footage that is not currently available in North America, along with character profiles and access to Web sites. Henson is incurring the cost of creating and replicating the CDs, after which the Sci Fi Channel will distribute them in its magazine. The hook lies in the fact that fans will have to tune in to the second season premiere on March 17 to get that special code that will permit access to the CD-ROM’s info.

‘We are definitely stepping up to the plate by providing additional content for our partners to use to leverage and help promote the show,’ explains Mike Polis, associate VP of marketing worldwide. The CD-ROM promo kicks off this month.

At a time when ancillary activities can help make or break a show’s success, ongoing promotion is a piece of the puzzle that is kept in mind at all stages. ‘We believe that something like this is an investment on our part. Help promote the show now and partner with the Sci Fi Channel, so that come time when the ancillary pieces of business hit, it’ll be that much bigger,’ explains Polis.

Despite working for a company that’s heavily involved in doing self-promoted series, Polis points out that it makes sense for the networks to spearhead at least part of a show’s promotion campaign because they have the largest voice, with the largest number of distribution channels with which to reach the largest number of people at one time.

A recent stumbling block, however, even if the network is kicking in for promotional efforts, involves determining exactly what to promote. ‘Do you focus on a block of programming, or on an individual show? Does your show get lost because [the broadcaster] is focused on promoting a particular block?’ Polis queries. This latter strategy may achieve the broadcaster’s objective of communicating to preschoolers that it has a preschool block, for example, but an indie producer with only one show in the block won’t be getting enough individual push.

‘They may end up using your character, but it’s one of five characters. It fits perfectly with the strategy that they are going for, but it’s a challenge to try and ensure that you are serving both needs. The block will not do well if the show isn’t doing well, or is not promoted-it’s a tough balancing act,’ observes Polis.

Sid Kaufman, executive VP of licensing and merchandising at Nelvana, also sees the need to look at the big picture. ‘We have taken a brand marketing orientation toward our programs, which really deals with the integration of the media engines of TV, video, publishing, merchandise and retail. Regardless of who the broadcaster is, we try to integrate them into our process.’

With increased vertical integration of broadcast and production entities, obstacles to this are often inevitable. ‘Because some of the broadcasters are theoretically competitors, we have to be sensitive to that,’ says Kaufman. Ultimately, what everyone cares about is an audience. So regardless of whether or not the broadcaster is a competitor, they too will opt to up viewership by participating in the promotion if the brand is popular.

Nelvana, which airs Little Bear on Nick Jr., Babar, Pippi Longstocking and George and Martha on HBO, as well as producing a block of six shows comprising CBS’s entire Saturday morning, is also starting to churn out product for PBS. The pubcaster will air six of Nelvana’s new book-based series in its first Saturday morning children’s cartoon block, PBS Kids Bookworm Bunch, which launches this fall. Nelvana takes an active role in marketing its properties in all of these production relationships.

Jill Newhouse-Calcaterra, one of two marketing VPs recently hired at Nelvana, sees no choice when it comes to the continued promotion of a prodco’s show. ‘Given the increasingly competitive nature of the children’s television business-preschool in particular-this sort of additional promotional exposure is not an option; it is a necessity in order to break through the clutter and make your show a success.’

According to Newhouse-Calcaterra, Nelvana will be taking an active role in promoting the Bookworm Bunch block, not unlike the lead they took in promoting the CBS Kidshow Saturday morning lineup. For that block, Nelvana hired The Regan Group to create a national Toys `R’ Us sweepstakes and affiliate TV promotion to increase viewership and ratings. The sweepstakes was supported with a 10-market cable buy, on-line postings and a dedicated Web page on Twenty-five CBS affiliate stations participated in the local TV promotion, which consisted of write-in-and-win contests, special events and other local on-air programs.

Similarly, Newhouse-Calcaterra says that avenues Nelvana will pursue for the PBS block include national advertising and promotional efforts, their own comprehensive PR campaign (in addition to PBS’s efforts) and educational outreach. Alliance with a QSR partner is also a component Newhouse-Calacaterra would like to see as part of the promotional efforts Nelvana undertakes for the block.

Sony’s Kramer notes that hot competition for kid eyeballs makes the enlistment of strategic cross-promotional partners more important than ever. Sony Wonder’s full-time promotions executive, Howard Nelson, senior director of integrated marketing, expects to land a Mega Babies QSR deal within a few weeks of the show’s relaunch on Fox Family. Specific attributes of the Mega Babies property, including its outrageous nature and action-oriented characters, help to favorably position the property in pitches to fast food partners. Since Rainbow Fish is a younger-skewing property, it is not being brought to the major fast food partners that seek the six- to 12-year-old boy demo delivered by Mega Babies. ‘When it comes to third-party alliances, QSR is the biggest challenge because of the tremendous amount of properties [the fast food companies] are presented with,’ Cappel notes.

Other partners that Sony Wonder is signing for both Rainbow Fish and Mega Babies include local cable operators, who can provide co-op advertising and air time for market-specific campaigns. For instance, a cable affiliate tie-in with Commodore Cruise Line out of Hollywood, Florida is in the works for Mega Babies, comprising promotional trip giveaways and contests supported through local cable affiliates.

Materials for advertising efforts can be expensive, and that’s where Sony Wonder leans on its co-pro partners (Decode Entertainment in Toronto and Germany’s EM.TV & Merchandising for Rainbow Fish; Ciné-Groupe in Montreal and Landmark Entertainment in Los Angeles for Mega Babies) to develop ad and promo materials, including commercial spots in some cases. Partners can also be relied upon to support campaigns in the territories for which they hold rights. ‘Properties such as Rainbow Fish and Mega Babies extend well beyond the U.S.,’ Cappel notes, adding that both series are already on the air in Canada (on TVO and Teletoon respectively.)

The final weapon Sony Wonder deploys in its ongoing battle to break through in the cluttered toon market is enlisting the help of other divisions of both Sony Wonder and its parent company Sony Pictures Entertainment-an advantage most indies admittedly don’t have. Since Rainbow Fish existed as a Sony video property prior to production of the series, now video titles will announce the launch of the show, both through on-pack visual bursts and couponing inside. Mega Babies will also benefit from subsidiary support, says Cappel, through tie-ins including an undisclosed deal with Sony Electronics.

Companies that do not have a helping hand from a parent company may be forced to increase their staff in order to fully support marketing efforts. Until the hiring of Newhouse-Calcaterra and Irene Weibel as marketing VPs of the newly formed corporate sponsorship division, Nelvana did not even have a west coast marketing presence. Notes Newhouse-Calcaterra: ‘We made a strong, concerted effort to bump up marketing of our programs. Marketing, promotions, PR-it’s all a part of it; the networks are busy, and their own budgets are being cut all the time. This can force companies to staff up entire departments to solely support the networks.’

All in all, no stone can be left unturned. Concludes Loris Kramer: ‘We’re fully supporting the launch of Mega Babies in the U.S. [As an indie producer], you’ve got to bring the viewers. You’re competing against broadcasters, as well as the Web, video games, soccer…’ It’s an environment in which achieving high visibility is clearly the only way to be seen at all.

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