Rules of engagement

Kids’ characters brand expert Christopher Skala looks at the ‘expectation disconnects’ in the children’s content creation space between creators, broadcasters and toy companies.
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Two news items in the past few months have struck me forcibly.

The first was the announcement by Hasbro that it would hand over editorial control of the kids-dedicated channel The Hub to Discovery (its partner in the venture).

The second was the unveiling by Mattel-owned HIT Entertainment of the new creative direction for Bob the Builder.

Both highlight ‘expectation disconnects’ in the kids content creation space between the creators, broadcasters and toy companies.

The encroachment of toy companies in content creation has been a prominent feature of the past few years. In very simple terms, the encroachment is a direct result of the breakdown of traditional content funding for kids TV.

Toy companies see an opportunity to directly influence content in order to deepen what they feel are the ‘right’ emotional triggers to get kids to buy more toys.

In the particular case of Mike the Knight a few years ago, Fisher-Price argued strongly that Mike must have – and draw – a sword. I knew that no broadcaster on earth would allow this. The fudge I came up with satisfied the broadcasters, appeased the toy company, but didn’t engage the target audience.

Fisher-Price was right, the broadcasters were wrong. But what parent wants little Billy smacking his baby sister over the head with a spatula pretending it’s Mike’s sword?

Both Bob the Builder and Dora the Explorer were hugely successful global kids properties, with audiences and with retailers.

Both shows were conceived with little or no toy company involvement, and both were gender-neutral. Both ended up causing disappointment to toy companies.

Dora wasn’t girly enough; Bob wasn’t heroic enough. The toy companies want stronger gender stereotyping; but the broadcasters dislike such stereotyping and actively promote gender-neutral shows. Creators get caught in the middle.

Mattel believes that its revamp of Bob the Builder will re-ignite boys’ passion for the brand and drive toy sales back to where they should be.

Problem is, they’ve conceived the show exactly as a toy company would.

How do I know? Because when I was creatively in charge of Bob, I was asked to go down exactly the same road by HIT’s in-house toy company.

Make Bob more humanly male. Give him male human side-kicks. Put him in the middle of Big City builds. Make the vehicles more heroic. Make the storylines more heroic. Problem was, it just wasn’t recognisably Bob the Builder. It was Bob as a toy company wanted him.

Will it work this time? Maybe. But Mattel should bear in mind the problems Hasbro ran into when The Hub broadcast shows that acted like prolonged toy adverts. No-one watched.

And the creators of new shows? What can they do in this environment?

My recommendation would be to look for a completely different route to the audience. Forget TV. Forget the toy companies.

It’s time for something radically different.

Christopher Skala, MD at Skala Consultancy, is a kids character brand expert with a specialty in content strategy.

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