Boys action-adventure series have historically been ratings and retail sales drivers. But while girl-targeted properties like Monster High, American Girl and My Little Pony are producing audiences and profits for the likes of Mattel and Hasbro right now, boys seem to be staying out of stores and away from TVs when it comes to properties made just for them. Is it that there is just less enthusiasm for the action-adventure programming that typically targets young male viewers? Or is it, as many industry types contend, that broadcasters have thrown over the genre altogether for gender-neutral comedy? When it comes to the viability of boys action-adventure on-screen and in the toy aisle, one thing’s for certain—times have changed.
The good old days
Sure, there’s a case to be made for the industry going back to the well too many times with the same IPs. But any discussion of the current state of boys action-adventure probably should begin by acknowledging that the industry got a little too used to the view through its rose-colored glasses. It looks like we’re now on the other side of the golden age of boys action-adventure.
Consider what was happening on the small screen at the turn of the millennium: Dragonball Z (1998), Beyblade (2001), Yu-Gi-Oh! (in English, 2001) and Samurai Jack (2001).
Next came Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2003), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2003), Teen Titans (2003), Ben 10 (2005) and Bakugan (2007)—and really, that’s naming just a few big ratings and retail hits.
Following those TV launches, of course, were apparel, toys, video games and virtually every other licensed good imaginable. Their consumer products success set the bar pretty high. The problem is, the industry came to see this as the norm. But boys action-adventure has always been niche—a small slice of the market that’s easily sated by a few shows, not to mention that elite group of big-screen superheroes from Marvel and DC Comics.
The genre has traditionally targeted boys roughly four to seven years old. (Luckily, a new crop comes along every few years, but it’s still a finite market.) That’s the range that Nancy Zwiers, CEO of Funosophy (a leading brand-building consulting and invention firm in the toy industry), describes as the physical empowerment age, when boys look up to the hero they want to be in an effort to try and master their world.
At that age, it’s all about strength, size, speed and skill, which manifests in boys’ content choices and play patterns. But by around age seven, boys start to expand their worlds, adding nuances and other influences. That’s traditionally, mind you. According to a recent study from UK broadcast regulator Ofcom, six- and seven-year-olds, who have grown up with digital influences like YouTube and video streaming sites, scored an average DQ (digital quotient) of 98. People ages 45 to 49 scored an average DQ of 96, meaning many six-year-olds are slightly better-versed in technology than their parents.
With that kind of tech savvy, kids are increasingly finding and curating their own content from digital sources. “We’re in a different place from 10 years ago,” observes Jules Borkent, SVP of programming and acquisitions at Nickelodeon International. “Ten years ago, for a show like Pokémon, the main destination was TV. That was the only destination where it could really live. That situation has changed,” he says. “The market is still healthy for boys action-adventure. There is absolutely a space for it on network. But I think boys have gone to different media.”
It’s a familiar list. Beyond linear TV and on-demand services, video shorts are readily available on proprietary platforms and outlets like YouTube. There’s also merch and traditional games. There are online games, mobile apps and social. Can action-adventure really live up to all that attention?
Not so much, some suggest. “I’ve heard a boy will watch a particular episode of a comedy 10 times,” says Nerd Corps Entertainment president Ken Faier. “Whereas with boys action, maybe it’s three times. Once you know the action element of it and the battle, you want something new. Boys will move to the next action pick pretty quickly. So typically, it rises to the top fast, but sustaining [that height] is kind of difficult.”
Additionally, market saturation is taking its toll, and the audience is skewing younger. To combat that, broadcasters are asking for elements that will open up the demo again.
“In times of over-the-top TV and binge-watching, nobody wants to find out repeatedly whether or not the world will be saved,” surmises Patrick Elmendorff, MD at Studio 100 Media. “So it’s more important to create action heroes with different facets—with friends and a family, or a unique school environment, for example. This automatically leads from a mere action plot to a mixture of action, drama and comedy.”
In fact, broadcasters are demanding it. “When we have channels that want to appeal to a broader audience, you cannot really think that small or just concentrate on a certain number of kids,” agrees Patricia Hidalgo, SVP and chief kids content and creative officer at Turner Broadcasting System EMEA. “You have to go broader. So broadcasters are looking for the other things in those action-adventure shows that are really resonating within a specific slot.”
Comedy is the current solution. It picks up boy viewers about halfway through the traditional action-adventure demo, but it holds their attention far longer and also grabs girls and parents.
“I think the market goes in phases,” observes Nick’s Borkent. “At the moment, we see a lot of drive towards comedy in all genres, whether that is animation, or live-action, or even preschool.”
That doesn’t mean action is disappearing from the air. It’s just returning to more familiar slots. “Primetime comedy is desirable for broadcasters because they get a more balanced, gender-neutral audience with it,” says Finn Arnesen, SVP of international distribution and development at Hasbro Studios. “But I still think there is a slot and a space for action-adventure.”
Arnesen says he is seeing action fitting into early mornings—the before-school 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. slots—sprinkled sparingly through the day, and returning for Saturday and Sunday mornings. “It’s almost like a return to those Saturday morning cartoons that were full of action-adventure, before the comedy comes in. If it’s scheduled cleverly and carefully, then I still think there’s a space for everything.”
But action is a slightly different beast from what it was even a decade ago. When it came to developing the new Transformers series, for example, Arnesen says Hasbro listened to the audience and broadcasters, who suggested the brand had become a little too serious. The new series, Transformers: Robots in Disguise, will rely more on comedy, and one of the central characters is Russell, a 13-year-old boy who meets the Autobots and helps them figure out how to live and hide on Earth. In other words, it will be about relationships as much as it is about world-saving action.
“You need a compelling main character that kids are going to identify with,” Arnesen contends. “You have to have somebody who is relatively ordinary in an extraordinary situation, because that’s going to be interesting to kids. If it is someone who is just all-powerful, then there is no jeopardy. And if there is no jeopardy, there is no consequence, and anything can happen. You have to be able to tell a story where kids care about the characters and will come back for more to see what is happening in each week’s episode.”
For its part, Cartoon Network has even re-imagined traditional superheroes for a wider audience. Teen Titans Go!, from partner Warner Bros. Animation, is a show that follows the Teen Titans when they’re not saving the world. “That’s an extremely comedic and very successful show,” says Turner’s Hidalgo. “It’s been working really well with both the younger and the older demos. Comedy is a much broader thing, and more appealing to everyone.”
Nick’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has also benefited from a TV update. “There is something in the DNA of Turtles that appeals to the broader audience,” notes Borkent. “Although it’s a franchise that is well known, we still have to make it relevant to today’s audience. We did some research on the appeal of the show, and it really boiled down to the friendship between the brothers and the comedy. That’s what we are finding really makes the show right for us and appealing.”
Borkent advises creators that they need to invest more time in developing stories and characters than they did in the past, if they want them to be successful. “I think the audience is more spoiled due to the options they have open to them,” he says. “So it needs to be something a bit different. It’s hard to think of everything that has been done before, but you definitely have to be original—that’s really key. How do you set yourself apart by really creating something appealing and funny, and something that boys can really relate to?”
But getting that new, innovative IP up-and-running is hardly a painless process. Seven years into development and roll out, Canada-based Nerd Corps Entertainment is having global success with its Slugterra property. President Ken Faier notes that the budget for the first season was US$17 million, plus more than US$1 million for the website and games, and a few more million for a feature film—then there is the new season that’s been greenlit.
“That’s the challenge,” says Faier of the outlay. “You have to run your numbers very carefully to see the return on investment.” He contends that the difficulty for anyone in this space is to continually introduce new elements for a property. “But then how do you invest in it,” he muses. “How much do you invest in it, and when and where? You try to create new ways for kids to enjoy this thing that they love, but if you give them too much at once, they burn through it really quickly and they want more.”
Launching Slugterra has been a gamble that has paid off for Nerd Corps. But what comes next? “We have been very careful with the next one,” admits Faier. “Slugterrais awesome—so how do we get something that is as good or better? We have actually scrapped a few things that we have had in development. They start as small ideas and kind of evolve, but then we get to a place and say, ‘You know, it’s just not good enough.’ It has to tick every box. So we have been careful, and in fact, most of our current development slate is not boys action.”
Nerd Corps has two preschool shows in development and it recently launched Kate and Mim-Mim with FremantleMedia Kids & Family Entertainment on CBeebies. (It was the number-one show in its time slot for its first week on air.) The company is also pitching for the rights to a feature film property that Faier says would make a great kids TV series.
Interestingly, Nerd Corps has spent more time looking outside its own walls than it ever has before for new concepts. “Ace [Nerd founder Asaph Fipke] created a lot of the properties we’ve done in the past,” says Faier. “But we’ve evolved. We’ve built an infrastructure to do stuff like Slugterra and we are looking for others who have a creative idea and the requisite passion. We have about 10 things in development right now, and nine of them are from external creators. That’s very different from where we were two or three years ago, and it allows us to play with more stuff.”
Nerd Corps isn’t the only company that has spent nearly a decade in development on its boys brand. In the UK, Platinum Films has invested just as much time and capital into its Matt Hatter Chronicles franchise, which has sold into more than 80 countries worldwide, has a robust digital presence, a feature film in the works and countless other well-considered ancillary extensions.
“It is such a sophisticated bit of business now,” says Platinum CEO Nigel Stone. “It isn’t a situation where a couple of great creatives can sit in a room and make a show. It is so much more than that.” He admits that if the same challenges that exist today had been around seven years ago, he probably wouldn’t have embarked on production. “We now have two seasons and US$22 million of spend under our belt, as well as millions of dollars in digital assets. But we can compete with some of the big companies. If we had to start from scratch, we just wouldn’t be able to compete,” he says. “Even saying that, it’s been tough—even with all the success and response we’ve had—it’s still tough as an independent competing with some of the biggest brands in the world.”
Although it was a long run-up to the show’s 2011 debut, Stone says the investment in story and character development is paying off. “[Matt Hatter] spent four years in the cooking pot before we hit screen,” he says. During that time, the team plotted out what the feature film, toy, consumer product and digital extensions would look like in lockstep with the core TV series development.
“We have launched novels with Penguin that are really well thought through, and that give you what the TV show gives you,” says Stone. “And those lead to stuff that you are only ever going to find out on the web—everything links to everything else. It goes back to, ‘How do you compete internationally with the big studios?’ You have to be as good as them.”
Because of the involved lead-up to Matt Hatter’s launch, Stone says Platinum limits the number of shows it develops at one time. “We don’t have a huge number of properties,” he says. “Many producers will say, ‘Do you want a girls show under five? Do you want a girls show over seven? I have a girl/boy show for 12-year-olds.’ It’s almost like they have a raincoat that opens up with multiple shows hanging from the inside. I don’t understand how they manage to do that. I think they’re brilliant to be able to do that because we can’t. We can only handle a few brands—and that’s the key word there—brands.
“I believe you make a choice about what your studio is. If it’s a production studio, then that’s great. You can make a show, and then another one, and another one. But if you are creating brands, then I believe you can only make a few, because that brand has to include a TV piece, and it better have a strong digital component—not just a bolt-on that happens at the end of production. And then you better have a support mechanism to be able to work with consumer products, retail and PR.”
The economics of risk-aversion
It’s become a harder needle to thread because there are so many elements in the package now, and all have to be fully developed and fleshed out. Meanwhile, the industry has grown more risk-averse, and the niche for boys action-adventure is shrinking.
But there’s still hope for creators who want to appeal to boys. “I don’t think that broadcasters have shifted away from action-adventure,” says Platinum’s Stone. “They’ve just shifted away from action-adventure that was more of the same.”
Innovation is still the key to success, even if it’s a longer road to get there. So maybe things aren’t all that different.
“Who knew SpongeBob would be a hit,” questions Hasbro’s Arnesen. “It took five years for that to take hold, then it became a massive hit. It wasn’t an instant toy hit out of the gate. Everyone knows that action-adventure is challenging at the moment, so you have to take steps to put that right and change the nature of what you do and what you are offering to the consumer,” he says. “There’s still money and appetite there, if you execute well. If you have a great idea, tell good stories and execute your ancillaries well, then you are going to have a hit. I guess that’s the encouraging point—it’s not all doom and gloom.”
This article originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of Kidscreen