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Merchandising kids reality TV

While it's doubtful you've seen the last bachelorette swan across your screen, with the adult reality programming market nearing its saturation point, producers have turned to kids as the next possible target audience for this TV show genre. And perhaps just in time. While a recent report from New York-based media company Bolt suggests that 68% of 13- to 24-year-olds are tiring of reality shows (with American Idol as a notable exception), the genre is gaining in tween viewership. Fox's American Idol and Mr. Personality were among the top 10 shows with kids nine to 14 for the week of April 21 to 27, with American Idol occupying three spots on the list.
June 1, 2003

While it’s doubtful you’ve seen the last bachelorette swan across your screen, with the adult reality programming market nearing its saturation point, producers have turned to kids as the next possible target audience for this TV show genre. And perhaps just in time. While a recent report from New York-based media company Bolt suggests that 68% of 13- to 24-year-olds are tiring of reality shows (with American Idol as a notable exception), the genre is gaining in tween viewership. Fox’s American Idol and Mr. Personality were among the top 10 shows with kids nine to 14 for the week of April 21 to 27, with American Idol occupying three spots on the list.

The problem is, the entire kids TV model rests on the financial bedrock of merchandising, and that’s not an easy prospect when it comes to kids reality properties. Transitory casts, initially limited merchandising opportunities and compressed time frames make for some pretty high hurdles to overcome.

The kid stars of talent-show formats can change from week to week, so licensees are cut off from bread-and-butter categories like dolls and action figures that require a concrete set of core characters. Icons and graphics from the show’s branding are usually enlisted to feed the merch program for the better part of six months until a few talented kids become stars in their own right. But by then, it’s often too late for product to be manufactured in time to coincide with the series, which is nearing the end of its broadcast run at this point.

Above and beyond this timing issue, licensees and retailers are generally reluctant to get involved in unproven programs with potentially short windows. So shows modeled after veteran adult counterparts, such as Fox’s American Idol spin-off American Juniors (launched May 27) and Discovery’s Trading Spaces: Boys vs. Girls (May 17), are seen as the safest bets. Ross Misher, president of L.A.-based Brand Central, observes that these shows have a built-in equity that appeals to retailers since kid-skewing merchandise (CDs, videos, stationery, apparel, video games and posters are the most likely product categories) can piggyback on adult lines on the sales floor.

With ratings giant American Idol in its portfolio, London/New York’s 19 Entertainment is bound to be able to convince retailers to take a chance on American Juniors. But the company’s licensing strategy for the spin-off show will no doubt be shaped by its experience with S Club, a teen band that spawned a live-action fiction series that aired on BBC in the U.K. and on Fox Family Channel in the U.S. a few years ago.

The highly merchandised S Club franchise spawned a kid band in 2001 called S Club Juniors that is now following in its predecessor’s merch footprints. After S Club announced that it would put out just one more single and album before splitting, the Juniors were renamed SC8.

And to reflect the change in brand emphasis, the S Club apparel line that hit Tesco’s this March was relaunched in May under the SC8 label. 19′s head of commercial business Mike Eaton says most of the S Club licensees are returning for SC8 product. New lines will include SC8 karaoke sets, dance mats, computer gaming accessories and other products with ‘a strong correlation to the activities of the band – singing, dancing, looking good – or which provide meaningful content.’

The key to success in merchandising reality programming, observes Eaton, is to make sure you have S Club-level marketable talents at the end of the series run – unlike shows such as Survivor, whose contestants are forgotten almost as soon as the final episode airs.

To that end, American Juniors will churn out a band of five kids between the ages of six and 13. The format has both advantages and disadvantages. On the upside, as kids are chosen by viewers, the band is sure to generate a lot of press and a devoted fanbase from the start. The downside is that no one knows who is in the band until the last show.

Interestingly, not knowing exactly what they are marketing has not been an insurmountable problem so far. 19 has already had discussions with major toy manufacturers about getting deals done before the band is picked, and according to Eaton, it hasn’t been a hard sell. The success of American Idol provides the template, and as each of the rising stars will have performed on national TV at least eight times before being selected, significant pre-publicity is assured.

‘One thing we struggle with is that broadcast television does not align well with the timelines observed by the consumer products industry,’ notes Eaton. ‘There’s just not enough time to put a line out there, whether it’s a branded line or whether it’s a line that’s focused on the band.’ 19 put the first American Idol series together in four months, and American Juniors will have an even tighter timeline. So while there are more immediate opportunities for the band, from a branded standpoint, product likely won’t be explored until series two. As for when we can expect the second Juniors installment, Eaton claims it could follow the next American Idol.

But don’t expect Juniors to take quite the same merch path as Idol. While merchandisers were content to work with the American Idol brand and logo, Eaton says the opposite will be true for Juniors – they’ll want the band. Eaton foresees a young consumer target demo for Juniors, but product will also be designed to include mothers and families.

He sees opportunities in dolls, games, playsets, apparel and calendars, but final category choices and target demos will depend on the racial/gender mix of the band. ‘We believe that the show’s viewership will skew female, but the band’s fanbase could vary dramatically depending on who makes it through,’ says Eaton. ‘If the band is predominantly boys, we could take it in an edgier direction that would spark more interest from boy consumers.’ This scenario could open up opportunities in action figures, board games and video games, in addition to concert product like calendars, posters and books. While no deals have been finalized, look for product to begin trickling into retail by holiday 2003, with a larger push in spring 2004.

As American Juniors diverges from the merch path of its older-skewing predecessor, don’t look for Discovery to reinvent the licensing wheel for Trading Spaces: Boys vs. Girls. According to Sharon Markowitz Bennett, senior VP of strategic partnerships at Discovery, efforts for the junior version of the ultra-popular adult show on TLC are more about evolution than revolution. Instead of marketing a separate line, Discovery has plans to expand its current Trading Spaces lines to include kids.

‘With Trading Spaces, the core demographic is women, but the larger demographic is families,’ notes Markowitz Bennett. ‘As a result, we have developed several product categories that skew slightly younger to tween girls.’

The Trading Spaces brand already lends itself to calendars, home décor items, board games (Hasbro), books (Meredith’s Trading Spaces: Behind the Scenes was the number-one book at Target, Wal-Mart and Home Depot at press time) and videos/DVDs (Artisan Family Home Entertainment). If any separate Boys vs. Girls branded merch is added to the plans, it’s not likely to roll out until Q4 2003 or spring 2004, and will likely target specific slices of the six to 14 demo that’s expected to watch the show. Markowitz Bennett sees ‘tremendous opportunity in crafts and other product categories’ like do-it-yourself dollhouse-making kits, books and videos/DVDs.

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