Kids biz players looking to mount a comeback effort generally troll for properties that have achieved white-hot status at some point in the past and are now languishing by comparison. But Nelvana’s keen eye was attracted to The Berenstain Bears because of the 40-year-old book franchise’s under-the-radar status.
The Canadian prodco has picked up worldwide TV and merch rights and is shifting into high gear on a 40 x 15-minute animated series that will be stripped five days a week as the anchor of the PBS Bookworm Bunch kids block this fall.
Launched in 1962 by creators Stan and Jan Berenstain, the books that teach moral and social lessons through the foibles experienced by a lovable family of bears have sold more than 260 million copies to date. More than 40 titles from the series are on the Publisher’s Weekly All-Time Bestselling Children’s Book List, which rounds up hardcovers that have sold 750,000 copies and paperbacks that have topped the one-million mark. One of the franchise’s most recent titles, The Berenstain Bears and Baby Makes Five (August 2000, Random House), sold 200,000 copies in its first eight weeks at market.
A new format called The Berenstain Bears First Time Chapter Books was also created as part of Random House’s Stepping Stone Series for preschoolers. Four titles came out last July, moving approximately 120,000 units collectively. With such a high level of kid market cachet, it seems odd that nobody has tried a global-scale Berenstain Bears push before.
The property did once have a life outside publishing circles. A series of five prime-time specials produced by Buzz Potamkin–via the now-defunct Perpetual Motion Pictures and Southern Star in Los Angeles, both of which he founded–aired periodically on NBC beginning in 1979 and were followed up by a half-hour series that ran for two years on CBS in the mid-’80s.
Both tube incarnations had relatively short lives despite achieving respectable ratings. In the early ’80s, NBC changed its remit to focus on series projects rather than specials. The CBS series deal fizzled for a number of reasons. Because it was running up against kid fave The Smurfs on NBC, The Berenstain Bears wasn’t winning its time slot, an absolute must for renewal in those days.
Financial pressures also made life difficult for the struggling series. U.S. license fees were dramatically higher in the ’80s, with some series running between US$275,000 to US$325,000 for a half hour, in comparison with today’s average fee of US$50,000. Plus, an eager Japanese company shopping a new series to CBS had offered to foot the project’s entire production bill. The network asked the Berenstains to start chipping in half the production budget on their series, but the couple refused.
Other studios pestered them for the Berenstain TV rights over the years and, in their zeal, kept adding zeros to sweeten the pot. However, Stan Berenstain, who is also co-founder of Berenstain Enterprises, rejected all these offers because the fine print demanded signing away the property outright.
So why Nelvana? Sid Kaufman, the company’s executive VP of worldwide merchandising, believes it’s Nelvana’s broad experience with long-lived book properties that finally convinced the Berenstains. The prodco’s literary portfolio includes such illustrious evergreens as Babar, which at the ripe old age of 70, has amassed more than 65 animated half-hour episodes and two features; 45-year-old Little Bear, also with more than 65 eps in the can; and Franklin, which has a 15-year publishing history and 52 episodes to its name.
To make a Berenstain Bears series work today, Kaufman says the key ingredient is injecting fresh media. The project is being developed as a high-quality 2-D animated series, but the content stays true to the books, carrying messages of family values and empowerment–themes that haven’t changed and hold all the more true since 9/11. ‘Even though the bears are stuck in 1932 psychologically,’ says Stan Berenstain, ‘we do keep up.’ For example, in some of the more recent books, the Bears have computers, use e-mail and surf the web.
On the ancillary side of things, The Berenstain Bears have a rather sketchy and disorganized past. Noting the success of the NBC specials in ’79, Hearst division King Features snapped up the merch rights and ran an extensive licensing program for 13 or 14 years. Plush, apparel, bedding–’You name it, we did it,’ says Stan Berenstain. After the King deal ended in the early ’90s, however, the property’s retail activity significantly waned.
Now Nelvana is gearing up to change all that with a full-on merch campaign that Kaufman says will likely include videos, toys, apparel and health & beauty aids. The first wave of product is expected to hit retail in early 2003, after the PBS show has properly seeded the market.