Launching a new preschool show in the U.K. is a bit like selling ice to Eskimos-it’s a tough sell when your customers are already surrounded by the stuff. From the BBC’s Teletubbies and Tweenies to HIT’s Bob the Builder and Jim Henson’s Bear in the Big Blue House, the U.K. is currently enjoying more quality preschool shows than ever before.
The intense competition is enough to make even a preschool powerhouse like the BBC think twice about a new entry, so when terrestrial Channel 4, perhaps better known for such outrageous fare as So Graham Norton, featuring everyone’s favorite ‘shiny Irish poof,’ announced it was getting into preschool, eyebrows shot up around the U.K. Still, Channel 4 is confident that there’s room for one more tot franchise-confident enough to invest millions in a massive order for 250 half hours of the Jim Henson-produced live-action/animation/puppet hybrid The Hoobs.
Angus Fletcher, recently promoted to president of Jim Henson Television U.K., says the new entry will manage to stand out from the clutter when it debuts January 15 because it’s different and because it’s good. ‘You need to be more distinctive, you need to be cleverer, and as with everything, you need to be better. And there’s a difference between the market being more competitive, which it is, and it being so saturated that something new has no room.’
Fletcher points to the show’s colorful look, charismatic characters, strong story lines, real interaction with real kids and solid educational underpinnings (it’s based on the Scottish national preschool curriculum) as points of difference. And then there’s the trademark Henson zaniness.
But the year-long marketing campaign kicking off early this month has to perform a double duty, Fletcher admits-not only must it introduce a new show, it has to introduce a new player in the preschool market. ‘Everyone points to the same thing-it’s no great secret-all the research will show that Channel 4 is not a preschooler destination. But people have responded to the fact that it’s a great challenge and a great opportunity.’
Part of that response is a year-long marketing effort incorporating both on- and off-air campaigns aimed at parents, educators and preschoolers. Helen Isaacson, president of world brand management at Germany-based Henson parentco EM.TV & Merchandising is helming the effort. ‘It’s going to be a very multidimensional, comprehensive marketing launch,’ she says. ‘We want to build the buzz quickly because we want to sell the show internationally, and it will really help if we develop some solid ratings in the U.K.’
The off-air component will consist of several initiatives, including print, outdoor and an ‘intense’ public relations strategy. Print-wise, Isaacson says she will go after moms with messages about the quality of the show in women’s weeklies and try to create appointment viewing by running ads near TV listings in newspapers. The outdoor program will see ads on the inside and outside of about 2,000 phone boxes in key areas across the U.K. through the end of this month. One ad will appear for each of the four main characters, with each focusing on the visual appeal of the show. The only copy will be the name of the show and when and where it airs, along with a prominent Jim Henson logo. The PR component will target women’s weeklies, and an educational roadshow will stage live events for educators in association with Channel 4′s 4Learning division.
The on-air component begins with five-second teasers mirroring the print campaign (each features one of the four main characters toying with the Channel 4 bug). Paul Ashton, special projects commissioning editor at 4Learning, says these will progress to more elaborate spots, up to 45 seconds in length, with one pool targeting preschoolers and a separate pool targeting parents in prime time.
While Ashton admits that launching The Hoobs is a bit of a risk for Channel 4, there’s potentially a big payoff-if the show delivers decent ratings, the channel could become a real player in the preschool market. 4Learning already has access to over US$360 million in funds over the next five years for such endeavors as developing new educational programming for adults, kids and preschoolers. The question now is whether the channel will offer up slots for tots as well.
‘This is a new thing for the channel,’ Ashton says, ‘so they’re really waiting to see for the first six months before making any promises to me as a commissioning editor. But if it’s really successful, then it would be wonderful to have something like 4 p.m. opened up to preschool for the first time, or maybe to look hard at the weekend and see what we can do there.’