Characters Long On Personality

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Special events promote new and old friends

There are many personalities in character licensing these days, and consumers are on a first name basis with most of them.

Each has a special appeal; but in the past year, none has created a shopping frenzy. Retail sales have dipped slightly, to $42.5 billion from $42.8 billion a year earlier.

While the softening economy has caused the retailer ranks to shrink and consumers to spend more sparingly, licensors continue to look for ways to promote their properties and loosen shopper purse-strings - freshening traditional properties - without offending consumers' sense of loyalty. The year promises a flurry of activity as licensors and licensees look for more creative ways to promote their stars.

The Henson Co. (New York) has kicked off a year-long celebration for the 25th anniversary of The Muppet Show. Coming are special events (at retail and in local communities) and a host of new products, many with a new look, says Betts Fitzgerald, Henson Senior VP licensing. New style guides and photo shoots of the characters will freshen the look and drive the business.

Henson's Bear in the Big Blue House enters its fourth production season in November; the property's retail presence grew this summer, thanks to a merchandising program at Wal-Mart. That presence will rise again in 4Q and in 2002 when more licensed goods arrive at Wal-Mart.

At Nickelodeon, the roster of available characters is on the rise as it attempts to meet consumer demand for more variety. When a property reaches 35 million viewers per month, Nick knows that it has reached critical mass to warrant a full blown licensing program. That's when viewers have become emotionally involved in a character and will buy licensed stuff, explains Leigh Ann Brodsky, senior VP licensing, Nickelodeon (New York).

Hitting its stride is SpongeBob SquarePants, a property that started in the specialty market and gets a full mass push in 2002. Helping to promote SpongeBob is Target, which has a retailer exclusive until yearend. Target is dedicating 30- to 40 ft. to licensed merchandise along with a hefty promotional outlay.

Nick also is readying a major push for Jimmy Neutron, Boy Genius. Interstitials have been on TV for months as a prelude to the Dec. 20 film debut. Mattel (toys), THQ (videogames) and Simon & Schuster (books) are helping to spread the word. The home video release is set for next spring, as is a prime-time TV special; in fall '02 the TV show bows.

From Nelvana comes Medabots. The kick-off came in an early September Saturday sneak peak event on Fox Kids that produced a 3.2 rating and a 14 share, making it the top rated show for kids 2-11. Medabots was even more popular among boys 6-11, earning a 5.7 rating and a 26 share. Sid Kaufman, Nelvana executive VP worldwide merchandising, says Hasbro will ship product this year and has key promotional events set for 1Q 2002.

While business has been tough, Sesame Workshop credits its business partners with creating products that should drive business for the classic Sesame Street gang. Lisa Appleby, VP business development, products and international television, Sesame Workshop, is upbeat about new merchandise from Fisher-Price, especially Check Up Ernie, Let's Pretend Elmo, and Tickle Me Surprise Elmo.

Dragon Tales, now with over 30 licenses, continues to win consumers. A bright spot is the property's live show, which bowed Oct. 4. There also are high hopes for Sagwa the Chinese Siamese Cat; licensing partners will be announced shortly with product slated for 2002.

Reaction has been strong to Butt Ugly Martians (Just Group), scheduled to air on Nick in January 2002. The edgy property has attracted over 50 licensees worldwide, says Richard Glassman, senior VP operations, Just Group.

Master toy licensee Hasbro begins shipping 1Q 2002. Just Group is currently in talks with Universal Studios Consumer Products for a variety of deals.

HIT Entertainment, enjoying the acclaim of its newly launched Bob the Builder series, will offer a renewed Barney line in 2002 in conjunction with the updated Barney show on PBS (airing shortly), says Holly Stein, senior VP, consumer products. The challenge with Bob, she says, is to keep it fresh. HIT is working on a five-year strategic plan for Bob.

Cinar will turn up the heat on Caillou in 2002. Caillou, which has been a steady build since last year, recently got a merchandising home at FAO Schwarz. On board: Irwin Toys (toys), PBS Video (video), and Chouette (books). A slew of promotional events will take Caillou directly to consumers. For 2002: Jamey Cohan Productions will create a live show, there will be more book titles, and the introduction of activewear and swimwear is planned. Cinar also is looking for new licensees in gift & novelty and fashion accessories.

For kids of various ages, breakfast cereal from Kellogg's will feature The Simpsons (Fox Licensing & Merchandising). Debuted in September were the limited-edition cereals Kellogg's Bart Simpson Peanut Butter Chocolate Crunch and Kellogg's The Simpsons Homer's Cinnamon Donut Cereal.

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