By Allison J. Waldman
Special to TelevisionWeek
What will be the next big thing for kids? Which toy is going to be the next Furby or Talking Elmo? And which entertainment company is poised to capture the imagination of children around the country with a show and a set of characters capable of translating into products that will jump off the screen and off the shelves? Those are the questions that will likely be answered this week at the American International Toy Fair, which convenes at New York’s Javits Center through Feb. 11.
Cartoon Network is just one of the major entertainment companies planning a major presence at Toy Fair, thanks to its alliance with Mattel, the world’s leading toy company. “We announced last year a partnership with Mattel and we’re going to be working with them across the bulk of our properties,” said John Friend, senior VP of Cartoon Network Enterprises.
“What we’re showing at Toy Fair is the first Cartoon Network toy line, which includes products from a number of our shows, `Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends,’ `Ed, Edd, ‘n’ Eddy,’ `The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy,”‘ Mr. Friend said. “And the thing that I love about this line, and the whole strategy behind this partnership, is really putting the focus on Cartoon Network first, and then all these great characters. It’s definitely coming from a Cartoon Network point of view.”
Cartoon Network’s programs and products are aimed at a well-defined target demographic. “Our sweet spot is boys 6 to 11. We program for that audience,” said Mr. Friend. “From the biggest decisions to the smallest decisions about how to polish off a script, we make those decisions knowing who our audience is. Boys love cartoons and they love the fantasy world. They love the comedy as well as the amazing action.
What sets Cartoon Network apart from the others, Mr. Friend said, is that it doesn’t try to play it safe. “What makes us unique is that we’re fearless,” he said. “There are a number of other things that makes Cartoon Network unique, but when we think about our brand identity we spend a lot of time talking about fun, funny and fearless. I can define fearless a couple of ways: In some cases it’s the tone of the humor and a bit of irreverence; in some cases it’s the way we do action for kids. We’re not afraid to take some risks or poke fun at ourselves.”
Cartoon Network sees Toy Fair as integral to its overall marketing plan. “It’s a key component in what we’re trying to do. Cartoon Network should be present wherever a Cartoon Network kid is,” said Mr. Friend. “If they’re watching television, if they’re playing with a toy, if they’re carrying a character in their backpack, we want to be there. On-air, online and on-shelf, there’s a mutual reinforcement mechanism that makes all the other ones stronger. Toy Fair is part of that.”
For Nicktoons, Toy Fair represents a chance to launch its latest property, “The Secret Show.” Commissioned by the BBC and produced by Collingwood O’Hare Entertainment, “The Secret Show” is a smart, sassy secret agent series about secret people doing secret things. “It’s sort of `Get Smart’ meets `Monty Python’ in retro-styled animation,” said Anna Hewitt, head of international licensing for BBC Worldwide. “With Dimensional Branding Group’s expertise in this market, and drive and enthusiasm for the brand, I’m confident that they’re the perfect fit for this property. We’re looking forward to making `The Secret Show’ anything but secret in the U.S. and Canada.”
“The Secret Show” has only recently premiered on Nicktoons and is slated to appear in 20 other countries in 2007. Toy Fair will showcase products from the show, with one goal being to create awareness among toy buyers. “It’s a water cooler property for kids. It’s a property that kids are going to talk about,” said Larry Seidman, CEO of Dimensional Branding Group, the exclusive North American licensing agent for “The Secret Show.”
Both Cartoon Network and Nicktoons promote across multiple platforms and try to be on the cutting edge of technology, in their programming and their products. “It’s a bit of a mix, actually,” Ms. Hewitt said. “What technology has brought to products is some amazing innovation. But one has to make sure that the return is guaranteed to justify the investment in product development. So it’s a bit of a catch-22 situation on that front.”
The Internet, on the other hand, is more of a sure thing. “You’ve got to have a real interactive, fun place for children to go to,” said Mr. Seidman. “At the same time, I think we all, as a team, look at technology-YouTube or blogging or whatever-as ways of supporting the program using new tools that didn’t exist five, 10 years ago. Technology helps us. It’s a kind of underground approach. One thing that really drives `The Secret Show’ is the Nicktoons Web site. It’s an excellent Web site.”
For Cartoon Network’s myriad shows, the Web is also essential. “Everything we do is expressed. Every story or character we introduce has to be addressed on multiple platforms,” Mr. Friend said. “Those boys 6 to 11 go online to play games, and we’re the clear No. 1 online with boys. And we do that because we make great online games.”
After days of looking at products and gauging interest, success at the Toy Fair will be determined in an old-fashioned way. “The real way to measure that is when the phone rings,” said Mr. Seidman. “If the show performs well, we’ll see the ratings and all that, and people who have been talking to us will be ready to make deals. Ultimately, it’s the kids, the consumers, who will really drive it.”