In the final installment of the series, Josh outlines how to approach consumer products and discusses the most important part of any preschool series – heart.
In order to understand consumer products, I try to visualize a TV series as a house that has a lot of rooms. One room is for toys. Another is for CDs. Another is for socks. When you own the rights to your show, it means you can rent out one or all of these rooms to someone who specializes in making and selling those particular products. So the sock man pays you so he can sell his socks with your characters on them. (He hopes he will sell more socks this way.) This is where most people in preschool TV make their money. Dora the Explorer, for example, has earned over US$1 billion in licensing revenue. That’s a lot of socks.
The person who owns the house is called the licensor, and the one who wants to make and sell the products is called the licensee. They meet one another at events called licensing shows.
Whereas most people get involved with preschool TV because they genuinely care about making quality educational media for young children, some people who work in licensing (though certainly not all of them) are more concerned with making money. To them, a preschool show is like a shop window. For this reason, I sometimes refer to the licensing business as ‘the dark side of the Force.’
In some instances, licensing people get involved with the development of a preschool series in the hopes of making it more ‘toyetic,’ which means it lends itself better to toys. I think this approach is dangerous because creating a preschool show is a delicate process and can easily be undermined by just a few misguided suggestions.
My preferred approach is to have show creators create and make the shows and then, afterwards, have the licensing people look at the finished show and determine how best to create great consumer products. To me, these are separate skill sets and both are critical to the success of a series.
I also believe the show’s creators should be consulted on the development of the consumer products to ensure that they are in line with the show’s look and sensibilities. At the very least, the creators should assist with the design of the style guide. A style guide is a document that helps all the licensees know what your show is about and what your characters should look like if they are placed on backpacks, soup cans or socks.
Back to the rooms…
Typically, when you rent out one of your rooms, the company you rent it to will pay you some form of an advance, and you will also get a royalty based on how many items they sell. Negotiating these deals is very complex and should be left to a good lawyer or business affairs consultant who specializes in the area of making licensing deals.
Some people rent all of their rooms to one big company, and some people rent the rooms out individually to several smaller companies.
And just like when you rent out a real room, you can sometimes have problems with your tenants. For example, there have been many problems with lead paint being used on toys that are based on well-known preschool shows. The decision to use lead paint was made by the manufacturers hired by a licensee to produce these toys. In effect, the tenants invited dangerous friends into the house.
In the case of an ‘All Rights Deal,’ in which a creator or a company sells all the rights of their show to a network, the network becomes the owner of the whole house and all the rooms in it. It is theirs to do with as they please. Typically, the creator will still get some kind of back-end on all of the consumer products. But be warned: There’s an old joke in preschool TV that the only back-end you will ever see is your own.
Sometimes a network will decide to simply not do anything at all with the rights, and the rooms will remain vacant. This typically happens when the network determines that there is not a lot of consumer products potential for a given show.
These days, a network is unlikely to want a show that they do not believe has consumer products potential. I can sympathize. Why should a network invest millions of dollars in a show if they don’t feel they will make a return on their investment?
PBS, BBC and other international public service broad-casters are not so concerned with profits and often don’t want to own or manage rights. They will want some of them, such as the broadcast and online rights, and they will pay a small license fee for these. This means you can still keep your rooms full of toys and make deals with licensees.
Finally we come to the most important ingredient in any preschool show: Love. Many networks favor shows that are creator-driven because they know that no one will love a show as much as its creator.
This love may take the form of asking for a 10th draft of a script. Or sending a composition back after a song has been recorded and mixed. Or asking an animator to reanimate an entire dance sequence. Love is the attention that makes a good show great.
Some people will put more energy into making their deal than into making their show. For them, the show is simply a messy and tedious requirement for getting products onto shelves. These people are likely to farm out their show to the company that presents them with the lowest bid or offers the best tax credits. They may give some feedback based on things their kids have said, but otherwise they don’t typically care very much about the details. Not surprisingly, these shows very rarely succeed.
If I do not love a show, I will not make that show. It is simply too hard and life is too short. And if I don’t love a show, I won’t be able to do my best work anyway. So, love your show or inspire someone to love it and make it for you. No love, no show.
Fear is a Compass
Finally, I want to talk a little bit about hope and fear. I believe that most things in life are possible, but they do require a sustained effort. I know this sounds naive, but I think it’s true.
I believe that hope is as important in life as food, water, shelter, love and coffee.
I also believe that success requires a willingness to face the fears that come along with trying anything new. I realized a long time ago that I am only afraid of the things that I really want.
If you follow your fear, it will lead you right to whatever you want the most in life. Maybe that’s a preschool show. Maybe that’s starting a business. Maybe that’s writing a song that shows people who you really are. I get afraid of things every day. I just try very hard not to let the fear stop me.
And I would encourage each of you to simplify your lives in such a way that you reduce the clutter and reveal the thing that you are most afraid of. Then I would encourage you to go do that thing. This will take great courage, but nothing is more important and nothing will make you feel better.
And even though I am very far away, and even though we do not know one another, I am actually very close by. I am the one waiting, patiently, for you to put pen to paper. I am the one hoping, expectantly, that you will speak. And I am the one who will be so very proud of you just for trying.
Now go sell some socks.
Little Airplane Books is publishing Simple is Good this summer.