In Tots' TV Shows, A Booming
Market, Toys Get Top Billing
By Aaron O. Patrick
Wall Street Journal, January 27,
Animators working on a new British
children's television show thought
kids would laugh at a character
called Pato, a googly-eyed duck with
a long yellow neck and a skinny
But executives at ITV PLC, Britain's
biggest commercial TV network,
objected. Pato's neck was too long
to be made into a soft toy, they
said. So the neck was shortened and
Pato fattened up. He'll go on sale
as a stuffed animal this year for
about $18. By the same reasoning,
Elly, Pato's pink elephant friend,
lost her toenails. She's expected to
sell for the same price.
As the age of TV viewers gets
younger and younger, television
networks are scrambling to compete
for the very smallest eyeballs. And
because profits in this market are
driven largely by merchandising, the
commercial and creative sides of
children's television are fusing in
a way that sometimes makes them
indistinguishable from one another.
"We're co-creators in a show," says
Michelle Smith, creative service
manager at Granada Ventures, a unit
of ITV. Ms. Smith helped the new
show, called "Pocoyo," develop
characters that could be spun-off as
toys and other merchandize.
The United Kingdom has long been a
test bed for children's television,
throwing out new ideas that are
followed elsewhere. In the 1950s, it
introduced the notion of educational
TV. Before becoming a world-wide
hit, the "Teletubbies" was launched
in the late 1990s on the British
Broadcasting Corp. The show is
credited with lowering the age of TV
audiences to below 3 years, which
was the previous benchmark.
Today, some of the most popular
preschool shows in the U.S. are
British, including "Bob the Builder"
and "Thomas and Friends."
TV networks are chasing preschoolers
because unlike older kids, they
haven't abandoned TV for the
Internet or video games. They're
also at home a lot. Britain counts
more than 20 channels dedicated to
television for kids, more than it
has for sports. In 2005, British TV
showed 10 times as many hours of
children's programming -- 160,441 in
total -- as a decade earlier,
according to the Television Research
Partnership Ltd., a U.K. research
firm. Programming for preschoolers
is mixed in with that for older
In the U.S., preschoolers have their
own channels. They include Viacom
Inc.'s seven-year-old Noggin and PBS
Kids Sprout, a channel launched last
year by Comcast Corp., Sesame
Workshop and the Public Broadcasting
Unlike shows for older viewers, TV
programs for small kids can't rely
on advertising revenue because
commercials aimed at the very young
rarely work. As a result, networks
pay low fees to studios. Shows for
tots are also relatively expensive
to make. Many use fancy
computer-generated animation, for
example. A seven-minute episode of "Pocoyo"
costs $110,000 or $16,000 a minute.
So producers turn to sales of toys
and DVDs to make up the difference.
A 3-year-old is unlikely to see a
30-second ad and request the toy,
but parents will often buy their
kids toys based on favorite shows.
'Giant Toy Ads'
Greg Lynn estimates he has to
generate $3.6 million in merchandise
retail sales to fund 10 minutes of "Fifi
and the Flowertots," a show for
little girls that runs on Britain's
Channel Five. Characters in the
series include a pet caterpillar and
a rabbit. Mr. Lynn, the show's
executive producer, says that's in
part because they make good soft
toys. Once the show becomes well
known, the production team is
planning to increase the prominence
of male characters to help sell toys
"Children's television shows are
just giant toy ads," says Gary Pope,
a London-based children's marketing
consultant who advised on "Pocoyo."
Successful shows can make big money
from toys and other spin-offs.
Viacom's Nickelodeon unit says "Dora
the Explorer," one of the most
popular programs for young viewers,
generated about $1.4 billion in
sales of toys, backpacks, clothes
and other products in 2005.
Hit Entertainment PLC, the British
owner of "Bob the Builder," made $68
million from toys, games and other
licensed products in the six-month
period ending January 2005, the
latest available data. That's more
than it made from sales of DVDs,
videos and selling the show to
These successes have inspired other
producers to follow suit. Joella
Productions Ltd., an independent
English production company, has
spent $7 million on a show called
"Underground Ernie," which is aimed
at kids between 3 and 8. Like the
hit "Thomas and Friends," this
computer-animated show is based on
talking trains. Executive producer
John Deery says he's not trying to
cash in on the success of "Thomas,"
but acknowledges that trains make
"The design of the trains is based
on the [London subway system] and
clearly we had an eye to the
merchandising as we were going
along," he says. "It's not just TV.
It's not just merchandising. We are
in the process of building a global
Shaun, an animated sheep, made a
four-minute appearance in the 1995
British film, "Wallace & Gromit: A
Close Shave." The character became
an unexpected cult favorite. Several
million Shaun toys have been sold
around the world. Producer Aardman
Ltd. says those strong sales helped
persuade it to finance a new show
based entirely around the sheep.
Wallace & Gromit creator and Aardman
director Nick Park says "Shaun the
Sheep," which is currently in
production, won't be influenced by
licensing considerations. "I hate
the way the marketing side can
dictate the creative side," he says.
The danger, some TV executives say,
comes from making good toys at the
expense of good television. Nigel
Stone, chief executive of Platinum
Films Ltd., a film and TV producer
based in London, says he "resisted
the lure of a well-known burger
chain" in producing "Planet Cook," a
cooking show. He wouldn't provide
any more details.
"Young kids really know when things
have been artificially inserted,
even preschoolers, and, indeed,
their parents, too," says Mr. Stone.
ITV executives came across the idea
for "Pocoyo" ("little me" in
Spanish) at a trade show three years
ago. The show had been created by
Spanish company Zinkia Entertainment
SL, which needed funding to get it
made. ITV's financing arm, Granada
International, agreed to finance the
show. ITV's children's production
arm, Granada Kids, was given
responsibility for overseeing it.
Granada Ventures, ITV's licensing
arm, was put in charge of
The producers say the show is
designed to teach children, age 2 to
5, basic facts about daily life,
such as the purpose of an umbrella.
It's based around a toddler called
Pocoyo. His "stories are
recognizable to preschoolers as
parallels to their own daily
adventures," says Anne Brogan, the
executive producer of "Pocoyo" and
controller of Granada Kids.
Throughout development, Ms. Brogan
held conference calls every four to
six weeks with Zinkia's animators in
Madrid and Granada Ventures'
executives in London. Granada
Ventures employees also regularly
traveled to Spain to meet with the
animators. Ms. Brogan would send
scripts to Granada Ventures.
Granada Ventures, in turn, hired Mr.
Pope, the children's marketing
expert, who works for Kids
Industries Ltd., his own firm. Mr.
Pope held focus groups in January
2005 with groups of 24 children,
ages 1 to 4. He showed them pictures
of characters from the show.
By studying the children's reaction,
and based on his analysis of the
show, Mr. Pope came up with a theory
about how kids would play with "Pocoyo"
toys. There are hundreds of
different "play patterns," he says,
including "dress ups," water
squirting and "crash and bash." In
this case, he said, children would
want to treat Pocoyo like their own
child. The toys were designed with
this in mind, with an emphasis on
cuddly and cute.
"Pocoyo's" designers had drawn the
toddler with a bright yellow
pacifier in his mouth. Pacifiers are
common in Spain but their use is
more controversial in Britain and
the U.S. Mr. Pope argued that its
prominent use might irk some mothers
and hurt toy sales. Granada Ventures
pushed Zinkia to remove the
The show's co-creator and Zinkia
founder, David Cantolla, wanted to
keep it. Removing the pacifier would
involve major creative changes. It
would give Pocoyo a mouth, requiring
him to speak. Turning him into a
talking character would necessitate
changing scripts, casting an actor
for the voiceover and reprogramming
They compromised. Pocoyo would be
allowed to appear with the yellow
pacifier in a few exceptional cases,
such as when he became anxious,
reflective or appeared underwater.
The changes took Zinkia several
months to process.
In late 2004, executives from Zinkia
and Granada met with Japanese
toy-maker Bandai Co., the main
licensee tapped by Granada Ventures.
They discussed an episode where
Pocoyo and another character race
each other on a car and a
skateboard. Bandai suggested that
the vehicle appear regularly in
other episodes; cars make popular
toys. Granada Kids objected because
driving a car was too ordinary an
activity, according to people at the
To resolve the impasse, Mr. Cantolla
sketched an imaginary vehicle, which
he called a Vamoosh. It could fly
and travel underwater. Bandai was
happy because it could make two toys
-- a submarine and a flying version.
Zinkia included the Vamoosh in the
title sequence so viewers see it
every episode, although it doesn't
appear in every story.
Toy considerations didn't always
win. Zinkia wanted the characters to
appear in front of a white
background. Granada wasn't thrilled
about that idea, concerned it would
limit the options for jigsaw puzzles
and books, says Ms. Smith, the
Granada merchandising executive.
All-white jigsaw pieces, for
example, would confuse small kids.
Eventually, bowing to the show's
overall look, Granada went along
with the white backdrop.
Working closely with the
merchandising arm didn't bother
Zinkia's founder Mr. Cantolla. "If
you can control the creative part,
it is not a very big problem to make
these changes for merchandising," he
The first episode of "Pocoyo" ran on
British television in September. The
show appears every day at 3:30 p.m.
on ITV's main free-to-air channel,
ITV1. In the three months the show
has been on air, it's been seen by
31% of homes with children under 3,
according to ITV. The network hopes
"Pocoyo" will be a signature show
for the children's TV network it
plans to launch soon for cable and
When "Pocoyo" toys and candy hit
stores this spring, there will be
several versions of Pato the duck: a
bath toy that squirts water and a
large soft toy whose neck is a mere
1½ inches long. Granada executives
have deals to air the show in
Australia, Canada, Israel and across
Asia. This week, they were in Las
Vegas at a television trade fair
pitching the show to U.S. networks.