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Toys ‘n toons: Odd bedfellows

The relationship between television producers and toy companies could best be described as `love-hate.' Like most long-term relationships, it boasts a checkered history of sacrifice, conflict, resolution, fighting, kissing-and-making-up and, in the end, intelligent compromise with the goal of the greater...
October 1, 2000

The relationship between television producers and toy companies could best be described as `love-hate.’ Like most long-term relationships, it boasts a checkered history of sacrifice, conflict, resolution, fighting, kissing-and-making-up and, in the end, intelligent compromise with the goal of the greater collective good. While the challenges are immense, the rewards can be incredible. And in terms of learning to work together (with apologies to the old `70s cliché), we’ve come a long way, Barbie.

The template for the toys `n toons relationship-both for the business model and for the creative interface-harks back to Filmation and Mattel’s He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, a series in which I was intimately involved as a writer. (Please don’t do the math-let’s just say I was a very young writer at the time.)

He-Man represented the first time that a toy company sat down with an animation producer and, together, developed (and funded) a 65-episode series. It was also (along with DIC’s Inspector Gadget, which debuted that same year) the first-ever syndicated animated daily strip-virtually creating a market that didn’t exist.

But what was really unique about He-Man was that it was the first time anyone tapped into the massive synergy between toys and television, resulting in a staggering cultural phenomenon that was later repeated by Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers and, currently, Pokémon.

It was like waking a sleeping giant.

It wasn’t easy. TV producers and toy companies think differently. Toy company jargon like `toyetic,’ `play pattern’ and `positioning’ was Greek to animation writers at the time. Conversely, we’d get glazed-over looks from the toy execs when we tried to discuss story structure, character arc and plot points.

On He-Man, to the everlasting credit of Lou Scheimer and the late Arthur Nadel, the producers had the fortitude to insist that storytelling come first and to insulate the writers from the well-meaning, but not always story-friendly, input from the toy company.

However, in the gold rush of toy-driven series that followed hoping to reap the same success as He-Man, many toy company brand managers were extremely literal in their expectations for how television was going to help promote their `brand.’ They came from a background of marketing, research, focus groups and evaluating advertising campaigns by simply counting images and impressions, etc. Some individuals could be quite dogmatic and systematic about how they wanted each of their SKUs (more Greek) featured and identified in the series.

This sometimes resulted in a carpet-bombing mentality of product placement. The assumption was that merchandise would sell in direct proportion to the number of appearances or references to a product in a television show. You’d end up with such inspired dialogue as:

‘Quick, Supertoad. The Stealth Swampmobile is attacking. Arm the Cosmic Wartblaster!’

‘But Frogmaster, the Cosmic Wartblaster is almost out of power.’

‘Maybe so Supertoad, but the Cosmic Wartblaster is our only way of stopping the Stealth Swampmobile!’

The audience, bless their intuitive little souls, rejected shows that put product ahead of storytelling. And when the shows failed, the toys failed and the licensed merchandise failed. It was `lose-lose’ all the way around. This led to a new awareness and sophistication on the part of toy companies and licensees.

Today, most toy executives are far more sophisticated and look to TV to do what TV does best. It is not about saying the name of the toy as many times as possible, but helping kids to enrich their play pattern into a more powerful, emotionally resonant experience. (Yes, that was me saying play pattern.) And this is accomplished by telling great stories that stimulate kids’ imaginations. Toy companies have learned that the greater the degree to which kids `buy into’ the stories, characters and lore, the more strongly they will bond with the toy.

In the meantime, in the face of downward pressure on domestic license fees, TV producers are more dependent than ever on outside financing and sources of revenue. Toys, in particular, can mean the difference between a show being produced or not.

So, the toy company/television producer relationship has matured over the years. We’ve learned to accept each others’ quirks because, at the end of the day, we really do need each other. Besides, who could afford the divorce?

Robby London is executive VP of creative affairs at DIC Entertainment and, despite persistent rumors to the contrary, was not the model for He-Man.

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