Everything old is new again: itsy bitsy’s Joan Lambur on engineering a sponsored block revival
As a kid growing up in the `60s, there were certain things I knew I could count on: everyone was way cooler than me; anyone older was way, way cooler than me; and there was a Wild Kingdom populated by lions, tigers and insurance executives. Every Saturday, there were Marlin and the boys (with the help of Mutual of Omaha) taking us places we’d never been before.
In the early days of television, it was standard issue for a producer to look for a corporate sponsor in order to make their show viable (Texaco Star Theatre, General Electric Theatre, The Lux Show with Rosemary Clooney, etc). Over the past few decades, the practice of directly associating a brand with a particular program has been considerably less prevalent. Not anymore.
The itsy bitsy Entertainment Company owned the rights to a number of preschool programs-The Animal Shelf, 64 Zoo Lane, Charley & Mimmo, Budgie and a number of interstitial programs that utilize stop-motion, cel animation and live action. However, none fit the traditional North American format. We could have sold these random-length programs individually, however we feared they would get lost in the jungle that is the preschool television world in America. Building a block seemed like the right answer.
There were many things to consider. First, we had to create an environment that our creators/producers would be proud to be part of. Second, we had to identify a network that would embrace a collective of preschool programs from around the world and would also be open to a formatted programming block that would run a minimum of an hour (we all know there is quite a real estate shortage). To add insult to injury, we had decided that, for reasons of aesthetics and corporate values, it was imperative that the block be free of commercial interruptions. So last, but by no means least, we needed to identify a corporate sponsor that would be open to the idea of attaching its name to this initiative.
Fortunately, all of our producers were very receptive to the idea of the programming block. They were especially enthusiastic about the amount of exposure the block would give their shows. With a one-hour format running Monday to Friday, each show was guaranteed a minimum of five runs per week-the necessary amount needed for the launch of a comprehensive off-screen merchandising program. In addition, the broadcast commitment would be far more secure than that offered by a traditional acquisition arrangement because the advertising was committed for a number of years.
Finding the right broadcast home was the next challenge. At the best of times, the preschool business is a difficult one. We heard ad sales execs all over America bemoaning the presence of that demo on their airwaves. We were told it’s virtually impossible to sell advertising time during those slots because of the ‘powerlessness’ of the viewer. We needed a broadcaster willing to look at an entirely new-but old-way of doing things. Where better to go with this type of extreme idea but to new, innovative organizations? Enter Fox Family Channel and Treehouse TV (Canada).
The last piece of the puzzle was to find a corporate partner with the vision to view this initiative as one of importance for the industry and, more importantly, the consumer. Hasbro was an obvious choice. It immediately saw the potential long-term, brand-enhancing opportunity that lay within It’s itsy bitsy Time. It was also prepared to produce corporate messages that were in keeping with the look and feel of the block and happy to serve as the open and close of the time slot.
It’s itsy bitsy Time! launched in September 1999 on Fox Family Channel in the U.S. and Treehouse TV in Canada. Fox Family Channel runs a half-hour version and a one-hour version Mondays through Fridays, and Treehouse TV runs the one-hour version three times daily Monday to Friday. Hasbro is now our modern-day Mutual of Omaha.
Joan Lambur is president of on-screen entertainment (TV) for The itsy bitsy Entertainment Company