As one more example of cable programming loosening
broadcast's grip on the public consciousness, consumers will see cable's top
characters everywhere from movie theaters and gift shops to fast-food restaurants and
grocery stores this year.
While baby boomers grew up with Daniel Boone caps and
Batman lunch boxes, youngsters today look to cable icons from Rugrats or Blue's
Clues to grace everything from their applesauce jars to the clothes they wear.
This week, the first movie based on Comedy Central's South
Park will invade theaters across the country. The network is ready for the buzz
surrounding the movie with a new line of T-shirts, posters and plush toys designed around
According to Comedy vice president of strategic planning
and new business development Larry Lieberman, South Park will also flood movie
theaters and grocery stores with limited-edition "Cheesy Poofs," based on the
favorite snack food of the South Park characters.
The brand equity of Cartman, Kyle, Stan and Kenny is so
strong that their images are the central elements in the movie posters.
"The characters have really entered the public
vernacular," Lieberman said.
Last year, Nickelodeon had a runaway hit with its first Rugrats
movie, and the network is already planning Rugrats II for a fall-2000 release.
Nickelodeon didn't wait for the hit movie to start
licensing its popular preschoolers to product merchandisers: It started its licensing
program a few years ago.
The timing of licensing deals isn't necessarily as
frenetic as it would be with a new feature-length movie such as Tarzan or Star
Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.
"We have the longevity that a movie property
wouldn't have because we touch these kids every day," Nickelodeon senior vice
president of consumer products Leigh Anne Brodsky said.
The network recently announced a co-branding deal with
Major League Baseball and its Rugrats. The first co-branded products are expected
to hit the streets next spring.
In addition to its licensing success with Rugrats,
Nickelodeon also has a hit in Blue's Clues, which saw its first licensed
products launch last year. The network is moving forward with licensing deals for its CatDog
and Wild Thornberrys shows, too.
"We wait for a show to settle in," Brodsky said.
It's often the kids themselves who ask the network for branded products, she added.
Comedy released South Park-branded merchandise to
specialty stores during the first week when its series aired, which helped to build the
show's audience base, Lieberman said.
The network licenses South Park characters primarily
as a way to build the brand, Lieberman said, adding that Comedy has been fortunate enough
to generate revenues from the licensing deals, too.
Pirates have also cashed in on South Park.
"That's part of having any kind of hit," Lieberman said, adding that Comedy
aggressively addresses the issue of counterfeit merchandise.
"Sometimes it's kind of fun," Lieberman
admitted. He said a group recently got caught trying to import 500,000 pirated South
Park dolls into the United Kingdom. That kind of demand indicates a strong vote of
confidence in the brand, Lieberman suggested.
Disney Channel has long been associated with some of the
world's most popular characters. The network recently began licensing characters from
some of its original programming, such as Bear in the Big Blue House, which was
created by The Jim Henson Co.
The Bear characters "already have timeless
appeal," Henson senior vice president of licensing Betts FitzGerald said. "I see
the same qualities in Bear as our classic properties like the Muppets have."
Bear in the Big Blue House debuted on Disney in October
1997, and last September, Columbia TriStar released the first Bear-branded home
videos. Later that fall, Dayton Hudson Brands Inc.'s Target Stores signed an
exclusive deal to carry Bear-branded products through April.
Licensees are merchandising products ranging from toys and
clothes to books, bedding and toiletries.
FitzGerald said Henson is also developing a line of Bear
in the Big Blue House products for sale late this year in Disney Stores. Bear
merchandise is already for sale at kiosks at MGM Studios in Orlando, Fla.
When considering a licensee, Henson looks for companies
that have good quality control and an instinct for creativity.
"We're only as good as the characters,"
FitzGerald said, "so we're very protective of them. We develop a creative style
guide to give to all our licensees to make sure there's a consistency in look and
Not all merchandise would fit in with Nickelodeon's
branding strategy, Brodsky admitted. "Nickelodeon's guidelines are to put kids
first and let kids be kids," she said.
Merchandising deals give a network regular feedback on the
popularity of a show's various characters, Lieberman said. But such consumer feedback
doesn't dictate the direction of future South Park episodes, he added.
"The TV show always comes first," Lieberman said.
"The merchandise follows."