After seemingly being put on ice since his acquisition by HIT Entertainment early last year, Pingu is poised to generate some new heat on programming and licensing fronts in 2003.
Borrowing a merch strategy from one of its woollier properties, Sheeep, HIT will leave the preschool licensing playground to launch Pingu in the tween/teen gift sector. ‘Pingu is a shining example of a property that, while appealing very strongly to its traditional preschool audience, has a definite ability to go older,’ says Katie Foster, HIT’s director of consumer products Europe. ‘He’s very sweet–you just want to pick him up and give him a cuddle. So from a girls’ perspective, we think he can go higher up the age range.’
Initially focused on Europe, where Pingu has ‘enormous heritage,’ the program will provide a seamless transition between the original 104 x five-minute Pingu series and half-hour special (available as a package for the first time ever) and the 26 new episodes that will go into production next January at HIT subsidiary HOT Animation (Bob the Builder).
Foster claims that initial Pingu product will be ‘much more innovative and creative than one would expect from a preschool property.’ And for the discerning tween market, that means subtly applied character art and use of icons, as well as a high level of design. ‘You might have a washcloth with Pingu embroidered on it so you get this sense of quality and gifting running throughout the program,’ Foster explains.
While HIT was in final negotiations with a master gift licensee at press time to create a range of plush, glassware and other gift items, open categories include apparel (outerwear and nightwear), toiletries (gift packs and travel packs), bags, travel bags, clocks, watches and other textiles. Phase two categories under consideration include ceramics and food products such as ice cream.
And although HIT has preschool plans for Pingu, Foster claims that she’ll let the market determine when those plans will be put into action. So if age-neutral product in the gift range (such as plush) begins to sell disproportionately well to younger kids, HIT will contemplate launching a kid-targeted line.
While tweens and teens might be HIT’s primary focus in phase one of the Pingu program, from a production perspective, the property is all about HIT’s core audience–kids three to eight. After purchasing Pingu–a series that had been airing globally for more than 10 years–in October 2001, HIT took a cue from the research team it inherited from its Lyrick acquisition and decided to find out just what it is about the property that appeals to kids. Says HIT VP of content development Mary Ann Dudko, PhD: ‘By examining what it is about the property that attracts or disengages our audience, we can impact future programming development.’
Between January and March 2002, HIT conducted a multi-national study in three key markets–the U.S., Germany and the U.K.–with focus group testing of more than 100 children and 30 mothers. ‘The overall finding,’ notes Dr. Dudko, ‘was that there isn’t a big difference across borders in the appeal of Pingu.’
Although that broad international appeal was a strong argument for altering very little about the original series, the HIT/HOT team faced the challenge of reconciling the visions of Pingu’s two separate production entities. ‘The first 54 episodes were produced by the original Scandinavian animators, with the rest done by an Italian producer,’ explains HIT senior VP of global creative production Jocelyn Stevenson. ‘In the latter episodes, Pingu started to grow up and become a naughtier adolescent.’
So just who will Pingu be in HIT’s revamp? He’ll be a cheeky and mischievous six- or seven-year-old penguin who always acts with the best of intentions. But the repercussions of his actions will be clearly highlighted, since focus group testing from the U.S. portion of the study revealed an impression that Pingu never received any comeuppance for his misbehavior.
Because much of Pingu’s international appeal rests on its globally translatable ‘pinguise’ language–sounds derived from an ancient Italian dialect, according to Stevenson–HIT will attempt to speak to the man who did all of the Pingu voices to ‘find out his thinking behind how the language works.’
An added bonus that may help HIT secure parental approval for the property: Dr. Dudko believes Pingu’s absence of any discernible dialogue also makes the series developmentally appropriate for the target audience. ‘When you watch Pingu, you have to pay attention and process what’s going on–I think it’s a wonderful exercise in critical thinking.’