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Brit licensors leverage teen merch appeal for kids TV series

When creating merchandise programs based on kids TV series, licensors tend to follow a well-founded industry rule of thumb--aim slightly lower than the broadcast target demo. Exceptions abound however (preschool generally translates unilaterally from broadcast to merch), and licensors occasionally hit upon that rarest of licensing rarities--a kid-targeted TV series with teen/cult appeal on the merch side.
February 1, 2002

When creating merchandise programs based on kids TV series, licensors tend to follow a well-founded industry rule of thumb–aim slightly lower than the broadcast target demo. Exceptions abound however (preschool generally translates unilaterally from broadcast to merch), and licensors occasionally hit upon that rarest of licensing rarities–a kid-targeted TV series with teen/cult appeal on the merch side.

Beginning this year, production powerhouses HIT Entertainment and Granada will attempt to shepherd a new flock of kids TV properties into the British cult market (ages 10 to 24). Yet cultivating teen interest in properties that drive down to kids on the entertainment side is no small feat.

‘If you’re trying to get older people to buy into something that’s already been developed for a younger audience, there can be some danger of losing the older demo,’ says Martin Lowde, sponsorship and licensing director at Granada Enterprises. ‘But I think if there are unique elements to the program that appeal to both audiences, then it is possible.’

While the merch program for Granada series Don’t Eat the Neighbours (26 x 30 minutes) will initially target the core broadcast audience of kids four to nine, Lowde is confident the series’ humor will carry over to a teen program. ‘Similar to how The Simpsons plays across broad demographics, kids can buy into Don’t Eat the Neighbours at different levels,’ he says.

For this strategy to work, the broadcast will have to net teen eyeballs, and this is where Granada is a step ahead of the game. CiTV began airing Don’t Eat the Neighbours–in which a single-parent family of wolves and a single-parent family of rabbits become unlikely neighbors–in an after-school slot in January, with weekend repeats this spring on ITV’s SM:TV Live, which nets a healthy teen audience in its weekly draw of between 1.5 million and two million viewers.

To further build a teen following, Granada will tailor the program to separate sets of characters. Wolf and Fox (whose humor is more mature) will be aimed at teens, while the wolf cubs and characters such as Lucy the rabbit (whose humor is more slapstick) will be used to target the four to nine set.

At press time, Granada was set to announce phase one licensees at the British International Toy and Hobby Fair, with a limited product launch targeting the core kid demo slated for spring. Encompassing toys, publishing, videos, stationery, apparel, bedding, toiletries and accessories, the program will target retailers such as Toys ‘R’ Us, Woolworth’s and Hamley’s for a fall 2002 main push.

Teen viewership will dictate the launch of the teen merch program, although tentative plans are in place for 2003. Categories being explored include apparel, mobile phone accessories, board games, video/PC games and gift ranges targeted at record retail and entertainment stores. On-pack and QSR promos round out the teen-oriented promotional plans.

Although HIT Entertainment’s preschool series Sheeep (26 x 10 minutes, co-produced with Grand Slamm Children’s Films) also incorporates edgy humor that appeals to an older audience, HIT is not relying on broadcast to bolster a teen-targeted merch program. What’s more, a toy-led preschool program won’t be a precursor.

‘The animation is still very definitely aimed at preschool, but in terms of merchandising, we don’t feel there’s a strong enough connection with what’s been shown,’ says HIT licensing executive Stephen Gould. The BBC aired series one from April to July 2000, with series two airing January to March 2001 and nabbing 1.7 million viewers. Repeats on CBBC are expected this year, and if ratings play in Sheeep’s favor and HIT subsequently decides to go into further production on the series, a kid-targeted merch program may be considered.

Based on the book Sheeep in Wolves’ Clothing by author/illustrator Satoshi Kitamura (first published in 1995 by Andersen Press), the series follows the comic adventures of a trio of sheep and their wolf adversaries. In Japan, HIT implemented a licensing program developed by Sony Creative Product encompassing teen-targeted items such as plush, mobile phone straps, calendars, schedules diaries and key chains.

HIT will strive to emulate the Japanese program in the U.K. this summer–marking the first time the company has strayed from its preschool merchandising roots. At press time, the consumer products team was in final negotiations with licensees in the launch categories of plush, stationery and greeting cards. Phase two categories currently up for grabs include bags, computer accessories, mobile phone accessories, confectionery, clocks, watches, radios, desk calendars, notebooks, key chains, games and puzzles. For now, licensing plans focus on the sheep characters only, but with several licensees indicating interest in the wolves, future plans may expand to incorporate wolf-centric merch.

Targeting the mid-tier gift sector, Gould hopes for an exclusive with a trendy retailer such as Clintons or Birthdays, and intends to price the product at mid- to upper-premium to facilitate the collectibility and longevity of the brand.

‘We’re trying to play up the fun, mischievous, quirky side of it,’ explains Gould, who commissioned Sheeep games and merch links on www.sheeep.com to bolster cult status.

If the British market proves receptive, the Sheeep licensing program may go global, with the U.S. as an initial focus. A North American broadcaster has yet to pick up the series, but it has been sold to Canada’s YTV and more than 40 other countries (including Germany, Italy and Israel), with broadcast commitments through 2006.

‘I think Sheeep is going to be the dark horse of our portfolio,’ says Gould. ‘It’s never going to be a Bob the Builder, but I think it will be a nice, consistent little property that may raise a few eyebrows with licensees and retailers alike.’

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