Both are extreme sports enthusiasts who routinely thwart the schemes of madmen bent on world domination. But neither Action Man nor Max Steel has been able to match wits with that most trying nemesis: The indifferent TV viewer, age six to 11. Ultimately, it may be this powerful foe that decides the future of both franchises.
A ratings down-turn has Fox Kids Network and Kids’ WB! re-evaluating their committment to the shows, and this broadcast uncertainty is forcing retailers to look long and hard at the toy lines, which are produced by Hasbro and Mattel respectively.
If both Max Steel and Action Man are cancelled, many boys toy buyers say they will scale back on the toy lines, if not phase them out of their planograms altogether. ‘Without the shows, it becomes a close-out situation,’ says Mark Kaplan, divisional VP of merchandising at Rocky Hill, Connecticut-based Ames Department Stores.
Though Fox Kids says that it will bring back Action Man this fall, the CGI show was not on the channel’s sked at the recent kids upfront market-where ad buyers haggle with TV ad sales execs over TV commercial rates for kids programming for the upcoming season.
Furthermore, the net has already aired all but five of the second-year episodes of the show, which debuted on Fox last fall, and Action Man’s Canadian carrier YTV has shown the entire first- and second-year runs. Since Hasbro did not renew its contract with Mainframe Entertainment, the Vancouver-based CGI house that produces Action Man, many industry players are speculating that if the show returns at all, it won’t be around for very long.
If Hasbro were to drop Action Man, it would not come as a complete shock, given its less-than-heroic ratings performance thus far. Following a one-hour special in May 2000, the series debuted in August on Saturday mornings, averaging a 1.9 rating with kids in the six to 11 demo for its first 14 telecasts, according to TN Media (the source for all ratings to follow). However, the show’s numbers dropped steadily thereafter. After moving to a strip in January, Action Man averaged a 1.5 rating in a 3:30 p.m. Monday to Thursday slot, then dropped further in March when Fox moved it up to the 3 p.m. Tuesday to Friday slot, where it has since averaged 0.5. Between October and April 22, the show’s ranking among the top 24 kids shows in the U.S. fell from a high of eighth to dead last at 24th, according to Nielsen Media Research.
Although its broadcast prospects aren’t quite as precarious, Max Steel is also contending with performance problems. It too has drawn so-so audiences on Kids’ WB!, where it has aired in Friday 7:30 a.m. and Saturday 8 a.m. time slots since mid-January, averaging respective ratings of 0.7 and 1.7 with the six to 11 demo. That’s down considerably from the latter part of 2000. From mid-September to January, the show grabbed a 2.4 rating in the Saturday 11:30 a.m. slot, and a 1.2 rating on Mondays at 3:30 p.m.
Slumping ratings caused Kids’ WB! to consider taking the drastic step of switching the show’s style from 3-D CGI to 2-D cel animation. Although it’s a moot point now, both the show’s producer, Sony Pictures Family Entertainment, and master toy licensee Mattel opposed the change at the time. Recently, SPFE announced that Kids’ WB!’s sister net Cartoon Network has picked up the series, ordering nine new episodes that it plans to air as a morning strip starting in September.
SPFE’s VP of marketing David Palmer says Cartoon is a better fit for Max Steel because the net has been eager to add a CGI show to complement its current lineup. He says Kids’ WB!, on the other hand, is trying to establish a consistent look to its kids programming, which is mostly comprised of 2-D cartoons.
Many of the new Max Steel eps, all of which SPFE plans to produce in the 3-D CGI format, will feature guest voice spots from well-known sports personalities, including L.A. Kings hockey star Luc Robitaille.
That Max will not undergo a style change is likely welcome news to retailers, who weren’t optimistic about the effect that switching the show’s look would have on toy sales. ‘The hardest thing to do is to resurrect an action figure line after it’s out. It’s impossible, because boys-much more so than girls-are affected by peer pressure. If it’s deemed to be `over’ in a kid’s mind or his social circle at school, it’s history,’ says one boys toy buyer.
To be sure, the retail performance of both Action Man and Max Steel in the U.S. has been mixed so far. Consensus among boys toy buyers is that Mattel’s Max Steel has been the stronger of the two toy lines and likely has a better chance of succeeding State-side in the long run. According to The NPD Group, Max Steel was the third highest-selling action figure brand in 2000, behind Bandai (Power Rangers, Digimon, Gundam) and Hasbro’s G.I. Joe. Though she couldn’t provide domestic figures for the brand, Mattel’s director of worldwide marketing and communications Sara Rosales says that the Max Steel toys sold US$100 million worldwide last year. Nevertheless, many retailers say that the line has under-performed in the U.S. One action figure buyer at a top-10 U.S. toy retailer says that the Steel toys have done OK, but that their potential for success has been hindered by the presence of other similarly-themed 12-inch rescue hero dolls and by Action Man.
Ames’s Kaplan agrees: ‘There are tremendous similarities between the two lines, to the point where it actually looked to some people like the toys were being produced by the same company.’
Some retailers say that the market for non-military 12-inch action figures in the U.S.-unlike in Europe and elsewhere-is too small to support more than one major line. The price of both dolls has also been an issue. Initially, both Mattel and Hasbro pegged many of their figures above SRP US$10, which rose to US$40 in some instances if the figures came bundled with accessories. That was more than many consumers were willing to pay for an action figure, and Ames’s Kaplan says this hurt sales. Both companies have since lowered the price points for some of their SKUs, which has helped boost sales, in particular for Max Steel, says Ames action figure buyer Greg Thuotte.
Though Mattel has mobilized many of its resources in producing and marketing Max Steel toys, for Hasbro, the disappointment of Action Man sales in the U.S. likely smarts the most. The 35-year-old Action Man brand is hugely popular outside of the U.S., where it accounts for more than 50% of the company’s international boys toy revenues. And though The NPD Group ranked Action Man as the fourth highest-selling action figure brand last year, several major retailers believe that its end in the U.S. is a mere formality at this point.
‘Literally, we’re waiting on the closeout. We haven’t bought any new items since last fall,’ says one buyer at a top-10 U.S. toy chain. Both Hasbro and Mattel say they will continue releasing Action Man and Max Steel product through Q3, and neither has plans to reduce their lines, regardless of where their respective shows end up. In any case, following a year in which dollar sales for the action figure category dropped 25%, retailers will have no shortage of big-name movie-based action figure lines to choose from to help pick up the slack.
Says one buyer: ‘You’ve got Jurassic Park and Planet of the Apes in the summer, and in the fall there’s Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. There’s no lack of new stuff coming out.’