It is never a foregone conclusion that a kids hit in the U.S. will transfer to Europe. But in the case of Pokémon, early indications are that 10-year-old monster catcher Ash Ketchum is destined for cult status right across the continent.
Most major European markets were skeptical when they first saw the show at NATPE two years ago, but the show’s success in North America triggered a stampede in 1999.
Today, leading commercial networks in virtually every territory have bought the full 156 episodes, according to the show’s distributor Brian Lacey of New York-based Lacey Entertainment. ‘In many countries, I’m looking at the same level of success as in Canada and the U.S.,’ he says.
The figures back up Lacey’s claims. In France, TF1 saw audience share in its kids slot rise by 20% to 70% within three weeks of Pokémon’s launch. In Portugal, SIC TV is attracting a 55% share, while in neighboring Spain, there are also significant increases for Tele5.
In Germany, a highly competitive kids market, RTL2 saw its average share jump from 20% to 68%. ‘We were speechless,’ says RTL2′s editor of cartoons and children’s programs Andrea Lang. ‘We’ve never had a comparable success.’
Free-to-air commercial broadcasters were not always the first to jump on-board the Pokémon express. ‘In the U.K., there was some resistance,’ says Lacey. ‘So we launched it with pay network Sky One, which had made a decision to get back into kids shows.’
Right away, Sky One saw an uplift in the performance of its schedule. By fall, Pokémon was winning Sky One the top ten kids shows among a basket of satcasters that includes Nickelodeon, Cartoon and Fox Kids.
The success of Pokémon on Sky led to an unprecedented joint deal by free-to-air commercial network ITV and its breakfast counterpart GMTV, in which the broadcasters aired the show twice a day-once in the morning and once in the afternoon.
Within three weeks of debuting the show last fall, ITV and GMTV returned to the negotiating table to acquire more episodes. To date, the show is holding its own in a basket of U.S. acquisitions including Disney’s Recess and Pepper Ann-though trailing homegrown hits like Art Attack (ITV) and Byker Grove (BBC).
In some cases, Pokémon is bolstering whole program blocks. This is certainly Lang’s experience at RTL 2.
Last year, the net’s kids block rated neck-in-neck with SuperRTL at 24% share a piece. Today, there is a 10-point gap between the two, with RTL2 at 31.8%. Lang is so pleased that she has packaged up a raft of anime shows such as Pokémon and Sailor Moon in a block called Moontoon Zone.
There is a similar story in the Netherlands, where Fox Kids has been scoring a 35% share among six- to 12-year-olds with its Super Sunday kids schedule. And there are no prizes for guessing that Pokémon is in the lineup. In December 1999, FKNL took a 20% share of the six to 12 set, making it the clear market leader after a 65% surge year on year.
Lacey’s view is that the show will prove vital to emerging networks, which want to establish their credibility with kids audiences: ‘It can be a defining show in the schedule.’
This is the argument that Lacey is presenting to new broadcasters like e.tv in South Africa, and it’s also a message that seems to have won converts in Eastern Europe. Aside from RTL Klub in Hungary and Polsat in Poland, deals have been inked with the Czech Republic, Turkey (ATV), Greece (Star) and Israel (Noga).
Ireland’s RTE and the protective Scandi-navians have also come on-board. In the post-Christmas period, TV2 Denmark, TV2 Norway and TV4 Sweden all started airing the show.
As a rule, Lacey claims to be securing premium prices support for the show. ‘I can go to broadcasters and get them to make commitments regarding the placement of the show in the schedule. They might run it once a week during school terms, but I can get them to run it every day during holidays.’
The level of episode acquisition suggests that most networks are into Pokémon for the long term. Lacey estimates that a 156-episode order means that broadcasters are looking at a four- to eight-year exploitation cycle. They are encouraged by emerging signs that the retail and manufacturing sectors appear poised to fall in behind Pokémon. As in the U.S., trading cards and Nintendo’s Game Boy titles are expected to drive interest.
How long Pokémania can last is unclear, but the likes of Saban’s Power Rangers has shown that careful development of properties can give them a long shelf life in Europe. RTL2′s Lang expects the April release of the first Pokémon movie to boost the TV show’s fortunes. She has also acquired Digimon, which is currently on Fox Kids in the U.S.
For Lacey, there is an irony in the way anime is now back in fashion in Europe. ‘I was trying to sell this sort of stuff for years and buyers would tell me they were moving away from Japanese animation shows.’
Demand for Pokémon products phenomenal in Europe
Now that the European broadcast invasion of Pokémon is official, the problem appears to be how to keep licensed products coming to the kids who want them. History repeats itself as local sub-agents are complaining about product being briskly whisked from shelves, and kids and retailers alike are eagerly anticipating product that hasn’t hit shelves yet.
Total retail sales of Pokémon product in North America have nearly exceeded US$1 billion, according to New York’s Leisure Concepts, the property’s worldwide licensor for every territory except Japan. Clive Hill, managing director of LCI in London, which appoints and oversees all LCI European sub-agents, says he thinks there’s a good chance European sales may exceed those of North America. ‘If we continue the same sort of penetration as America, it will be the biggest property of all time.’
Although the series has been airing for almost a year in the U.K., ‘there’s really not a huge amount of product available,’ says Hill. Hasbro product, Nintendo Game Boy titles and Wizards of the Coast trading cards are available to a limited degree. Hill ranks the popularity of the Game Boy games as especially high. Over a 12-week period, they sold over two times the rate per capita of the U.S. sales rate. Hill also says stickers and sticker albums are popular in the U.K.
Although there won’t be any real difference between North American and U.K. licensed Pokémon product, there will be fewer licensees per category in Britain. He expects to sign around 100 in total, but has entertained at least 200 license applications.
No immediate rivals come to mind when it comes to competing with the anime property in the U.K., although he sees Digimon coming in a close second.
In Germany, where EM.TV & Merchandising recently secured the TV and merchandising rights for Germany, Switzerland and Austria, sales of licensed products began only four months ago. According to Riccada Kolb, spokes -person at EM.TV, the company is convinced that the German market will match the franchise’s global success. Nintendo sold 800,000 Pokémon Game Boy titles in Germany in the three months leading up to December 1999.
Trading card fever is also high. The first cards sold out immediately, says Kolb. Other hot merchandise now includes Power Pokés, bouncing balls and beanies. Looking forward, EM.TV is planning to launch merchandise in other categories like housewares, personal care and consumer electronics.
‘We believe there will be many new creative product ideas since the demand of the Pokémon fans seems to be insatiable. Not since the advent of Sailor Moon in Germany has there been such a big anime hit.’
Italy currently has limited Pokémon merch available, but distribution of various products from Hasbro, Nintendo and Wizards of the Coast is taking place this month. Gianfranco Mari, CEO of LCI sub-agent Dic2 in Milan, says two local licensees based in Rome have also been signed; Play Press will make activity books, and Diamond has signed up to produce magazines and coloring books, all of which is expected to launch this summer.
Licensees should total between 20 and 30, and the program will differ slightly from the U.S. model in that much of the apparel will be of a higher quality, Mari says. He predicts sales of at least US$100 million, partly because Italy has started its licensing program later and because awareness is higher.
By comparison, South American countries like Brazil are forecasting around US$50 million in retail sales, according to Reynaldo Marchezini, director of Exim Licensing Brazil. However, the licensing program there has been more focused on sticker albums, toys and magazines than trading cards because they have not yet hit the market. Although the Pokémon licensing campaign only began in Spain this past December, sub-agent for Spain and Portugal BRB International’s licensing director Eric Belloso projects retail sales there to reach US$300 million.
No merchandise produced by local licensees is yet available, but three main launches are planned for back-to-school, Christmas and summer 2001. Belloso says since its December launch, Hasbro’s line, which made up about 60% to 70% of total Pokémon merch sales, sold out within two weeks. Other strong showings are predicted for publishing, food and beverages. Although trading cards are not available yet, tournaments are planned across the territory, and Belloso is confident this initiative will drive demand for more Pokémon gear. BRB may also sign licensees for some rather unique products like perfume and croissant-like pastries. ‘The demand is amazing,’ he says.
In France, TF1 Enterprises is handling the licensing. Deputy director of merchandise and licensing Brigitte Legendre says since the show just launched in January, it’s still difficult to say exactly which categories will be strong. She assumes, however that Hasbro, Wizards of the Coast and Nintendo products will make a good showing, and expects to end up with a 50-licensee program spanning categories such as apparel, candy, food, publishing, shoes, stationery and costumes.
‘Even if the spirit of the French market is different from the U.S. one, Pokémon’s so huge it should be very strong.’
Over in Eastern Europe, Richard Jakab of Plus Licens Budapest says that Pokémon will not start to air on Hungarian television until April and that Nintendo Game Boy products won’t be translated into Hungarian, putting some limitations on the program. Jackab adds that the Game Boy titles’ price points are too expensive for Eastern European consumers, a factor that he expects will further impede sales. Currently, awareness of Pokémon at the retail level is nil, although demand for other anime-based properties like Dragonball Z and Sailor Moon was high at one time. However, Jakab believes the hottest sellers will be toys, trading cards, stickers and books.
In Greece, efforts are focused on aiding the importation of international products, says Betina Cochran, GM of J.T. Licensing in Athens. Locally produced licensed product won’t appear until at least fall 2000.
In one of the newest territories, Scandinavia, Freddy Larsen, president of Denmark’s Mega Merchandising, says although the program is just ramping up, he ‘hasn’t seen any interest like this since Ninja Turtles.’