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Courting Kids, Networks Aim Younger

Preschoolers Are the New Target Demo as Companies Focus on Merchandise Tie-Ins at the 2006 Toy Fair

By Wayne Friedman
TelevisionWeek, 2/20/06

Kids TV marketers hope the next big thing comes for a smaller size.

TV networks such as Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network and other kids TV producers attending the annual Toy Fair market in New York last week were focused on preschool TV shows and licensed products that target kids ages 2 to 5.

"The only real opportunity is with preschool," said Shelly Hirsch, a veteran kids media buying executive who recently resigned as CEO of Summit Media Group, a media buying agency owned by 4Kids Entertainment. "Kids get older faster. They leave the toy department at a younger age."

But targeting this young group of kids isn't easy-for a number of reasons.

"Preschool is not an advertising-friendly area," said Andy Heyward, chairman and CEO of DIC Entertainment.

"There are merchandising opportunities but there aren't many advertising opportunities," said Al Kahn, chairman and CEO of 4Kids Entertainment, which runs the 4Kids TV programming block on the Fox network. For example, both Noggin and PBS Kids Sprout are commercial-free networks.

"It's very difficult to advertise to a preschool audience," Mr. Hirsch said. "Can those kids make the decisions? Or is [the decision] with the parents? Creatively, you don't have the same liberties [in advertising] that you do with older kids."

There is also the more controversial advertising issue of whether advertising should be targeted to kids ages 2 to 5 at all. "Some people believe that this poisons young minds," Mr. Hirsch said.

TV and kids property owners have little choice but to consider going younger. Younger children are increasingly moving to older playthings and gadgets-electronics, video games and video player products.

Separately, there's the concern that even though kids TV products have been flooding the market for the past several years, few toys have broken out as blockbuster sellers. The last big rush came from MGA Entertainment's Bratz line of dolls when it came to the market in June 2001. Since then Bratz has become a dominant player, pulling in more than $3 billion per year in merchandise sales.

"There are a lot of properties, to be sure," said John Friend, senior VP of Cartoon Network Enterprises, the licensing unit of Cartoon Network. "But there isn't a glut of hit brands. The marketplace is not much different than it was 10 or 20 years ago. It's about having impactful product."

Mr. Friend doesn't think electronics and video games are taking over the whole toy industry. In fact, electronics can help the business-especially in the case of preschool TV viewers. "It's about figuring out electronics," he said. "It's about creating new opportunities, making toys better." For instance, he said, preschool toys such as stuffed animals could incorporate more sophisticated electronic talking devices.

As TV networks and their licensees look to younger targets, Nielsen Media Research's ability to measure the preschool audience ages 2 to 5 is becoming a bigger issue.

"There has always been a discrepancy-as high as 30 percent,-in measuring 2 to 11," said Brad Adgate, senior VP and corporate research director for Horizon Media.

Media buying executive Mr. Hirsch added: "We still have a Nielsen problem in how it measures kids."

TV marketers can't do much about problems with measurement. Their focus is on the creative work behind new TV shows, in the hope it can be a springboard for licensees to develop a new line of toys.

Nickelodeon's big push at the Toy Fair came from preschool efforts such as "Go, Diego, Go!," a spinoff of the ever-popular "Dora the Explorer," while Cartoon Network is offering "Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends."

Two new preschool networks have launched and grown over the past few years: Nickelodeon's Noggin and PBS Kids Sprout. Last year, Cartoon Network launched Tickle U, an early-morning programming block for preschool kids.

Nickelodeon's "Go, Diego, Go!" is about an 8-year-old boy who goes on adventures, speaking in both English and Spanish to animals as well as people. Nickelodeon has already started up a full line of adventure play games for young boys, the show's primary target audience.

Fisher-Price is the master toy licensee of the show as well as of other Nickelodeon shows. Sherice Torres, VP of hard goods for Nickelodeon and Viacom Consumer Products, said the company is seeking a broad range of products for "Diego," including books, video, apparel and party products.

Nickelodeon's other preschool properties include "The Backyardigans," a musical adventure series about five high-spirited preschool friends who rely on their imaginations to embark on adventures. In every episode, a backyard transforms into a new fantastic, photo-real landscape that serves as the backdrop for story-driven musicals.

Nickelodeon also brought older kids properties to the Toy Fair. "Avatar: The Last Airbender" is about a boy named Aang who struggles to restore balance in his war-torn world. It targets boys 6 to 11 and is serialized.

"This is linear story-the first that we have done," Ms. Torres said. "It's Asian-influenced but not anime. We have a full line of action figures inspired by heroes and villains."

Nickelodeon has also moved into the license representative business, representing its first non-Nickelodeon property at the Toy Fair: "Holly Hobbie and Friends," a direct-to-video property owned by American Greetings. "Holly Hobbie" is an animated series focusing on a 10-year-old girl, Holly Hobbie, who has a clubhouse where she does projects such as making her own clothes and beading.

Cartoon Network's Toy Fair efforts were focused on "Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends" and "Ben 10."

"Foster's Home" is a place for unwanted, weird-looking animated imaginary characters. Cartoon Network's Mr. Friend describes it as "Monsters Inc." meets "Cheers." "It's a comedy about their situations," he said. "Foster's Home" skews to preschool boys and girls.

Currently Cartoon Network doesn't own any of those preschool properties running in Tickle U, but it looks in the future to create its own programming for Tickle U and later to make licensing deals.

Cartoon Network also focused on older kids shows at the Toy Fair. "Ben 10" is about a boy who finds a mysterious device that allows him to change into 10 alien heroes. The show targets boys 9 to 14.

PBS Kids' "Jakers! The Adventures of Piggley Winks" is a preschool show about storytelling. Last fall, the show moved from weekends to become a Monday-to-Friday strip. Special guest voices include actor/producer Mel Brooks, Irish American author Frank McCourt and comedian Joan Rivers. The show, owned by United Kingdom kids entertainment company Entara, has already signed up master toy licensee Commonwealth for plush and play-set toys.

DIC Entertainment has focused on preschool kids properties for some time, especially for its syndicated, Federal Communications Commission-friendly DIC Kids Network. This fall it will also program CBS's Saturday mornings, as CBS has parted ways with Nickelodeon, which provided its Saturday-morning programming for the past few years.

This year at Toy Fair, DIC unveiled a new version of the 1960s Troll dolls, which will be the basis of a new show on CBS called "Good Luck Trolls." DIC will also have new license programs for "Strawberry Shortcake" and "Madeline."

For girls 6 to 9, DIC is licensing mass-market products for "Horseland," a new show that will run on the DIC Kids Network based on an online game in which players interact in a virtual community, raising, breeding and showing horses and competing against each other.

4Kids TV doesn't run any preschool shows in its Fox programming block. But 4Kids TV chairman Mr. Kahn said the company is looking at developing preschool programming for other networks.

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