Selling the Planet at the Location Nearest You

The chunky yellow binoculars sitting on my desk are proving to be an irresistible attraction for RealScreen staffers. 'Ooh, a View-Master!' is quickly becoming the most common utterance in a day. But, this View-Master isn't like the one on which twenty-somethings...
August 1, 2000

The chunky yellow binoculars sitting on my desk are proving to be an irresistible attraction for RealScreen staffers. ‘Ooh, a View-Master!’ is quickly becoming the most common utterance in a day. But, this View-Master isn’t like the one on which twenty-somethings used to enjoy Scooby-Doo comics. This View-Master, made by Fisher-Price for Discovery Channel, reveals colorful 3-D images of underwater creatures and turns into working binoculars with the turn of a round, purple knob.

‘We wanted to build a product line that captured the world in the same way Discovery Channel captures the world,’ says Kenton Selvey, VP of sales and marketing, international consumer and educational products. ‘In all of our research, learning during leisure time is seen as being as – or more – important than having fun. Parents want kids to interact with toys that give them an added value.’

Taking advantage of the lure of learning is one way broadcasters and producers are promoting merchandising and licensing initiatives attached to natural history docs. Discovery’s plush toy line, for example, uses packaging that shows the habitat of the represented animal and provides interesting points about the animal itself. The aforementioned View-Master pairs a larger image with small insets that reveal scientific facts or highlights physical details of the featured creature. Children’s retail giant Toys R Us signed a deal with Discovery earlier this year to become the exclusive retailer and licensee for the broadcaster’s Animal Planet toy line.

Character value

‘The merchandise has to reflect the factual content of the show,’ agrees Charlotte Hargreaves, BBC Worldwide’s adult licensing manager. ‘It’s not appropriate to do bubble bath. Merchandise also has to reflect brand values. One thing about natural history is [the merchandise] sometimes doesn’t reflect the quality of the program.’

With the exception of Walking with Dinosaurs – which has become a brand in itself – Hargreaves admits the BBC’s efforts at tapping into the financial and promotional benefits of ancillary markets with respect to natural history programming has been ‘fairly piecemeal.’ Products such as books, calendars and diaries tend to focus on the photographic nature of the genre. The success of Walking with Dinosaurs, however, may have opened the door to more aggressive excursions into the arena of merchandising and licensing. ‘[Walking with Dinosaurs] made us think very closely about the appropriateness of product,’ explains Hargreaves. ‘It also attracted a lot of companies to the BBC.

‘Natural history is something the BBC is renowned for and we can build on that. When you think of the wealth of natural history programs the BBC has, however, it would be impossible to do merchandising for all of them. We have to really focus – and this is done internally as a team – on the ones that have the strongest brand values and the strongest image.’

What the qualities of a program with these values or image are is a little less concrete. ‘It’s a pun, but Walking With Dinosaurs is big,’ says Hargreaves, trying to put it into words.

Some doc producers are taking a cue from Disney – arguably the masters of merchandising – and looking for this ephemeral quality in the animals NH films introduce to viewers. Discovery made its first foray into character-based licensing with a product line based on Animal Planet’s Crocodile Hunter series. Available in the u.s. later this year, Discovery plans to take the line, which is built around on-air hosts Steve and Terri Irwin, to the international market and is in negotiations to launch in the U.K. around Christmas of this year.

Barry Clark, co-chairman of California’s Mandalay Media Arts, has also considered using this approach, ‘Natural history can create characters that people might want to see or learn more about through books or various other merchandising. In the case of Sahara, we had characters that were emblematic of the show – fennec foxes that have these big ears. They have the potential to be the panda bear of the Sahara desert. With a more ambitious mind-set, we could have created plush toys and promoted them with part of the proceeds going to desert conservation. That would have helped build viewership for the show and maybe even have created a minor revenue stream.’

Ambition aside, effective licensing activities take months of advanced planning. ‘The reason we don’t get around to these things is because those of us who are producing the programs are much too busy doing just that,’ acknowledges Clark. ‘Most companies don’t have a division whose sole mission is the exploitation of every possible merchandising potential a program has to offer. When you’re locked into delivering a program, all other things become afterthoughts you address after the program is delivered, which in most cases is too late.’

Releasing the soundtrack to a film is one route producers can take to step into ancillary markets after a project is complete. Mandalay recently released the score for Galapagos: The Enchanted Voyage (a large-format 3-D film that debuted Fall 1999) and are considering producing a CD for Sahara. ‘We would be happy if we made US$60,000 on the Sahara score, which is a $2 million film,’ says Clark. ‘That’s with zero promotion and zero advertising. [Soundtracks] can be a small but significant income source which a lot of people in non-fiction fail to exploit.’

Case in Point

Manuel Catteau of Paris, France’s Zoo Ethnological Documentary (zed) recently released a five-album Lands of Legends CD set based on a like titled 13 x 26-minute series produced at about us$100,000 per episode. The film explores ethnic and indigenous cultures across the globe and examines their myths, their music and their relationships with nature. Having collected a variety of stories, sounds and images, Catteau started looking for ways other than television documentaries to use this information.

‘The idea for a CD came because we have music from around the world and all of it is original,’ recalls Catteau. ‘We used the music we originated on location (a sound engineer accompanies Catteau on shoots) and then edited it together back here in Paris.’

Each CD cost around US$10,000 to produce, including the 40-page booklet that’s snuggled into a pocket on the inside of each jacket. The booklets, which contain three stories that correspond to three different destinations visited in making the series, are full of photos and provide a strong visual link to the films that inspired the project. ‘The idea is not that we are selling a record,’ explains Catteau. ‘We are selling a universe in which you will find stories, music and information about indigenous people and the countries in which they live.’

Catteau spent about $3,000 putting together the first CD and booklet he used to garner the interest of Inca, a small record company based in France, which offered to produce the first five albums and help find a distributor. Catteau received a minimum guarantee as an advance on sales of $10,000 per album, which was invested in the production of the CDs. EMI was eventually signed as distributor and the collection is being sold in large department stores across France.

‘Despite the fact that the topic is very niche because it’s ethno-music, [EMI] is promoting it as if it were a product for everyone,’ says Catteau. ‘They are really betting on this, which is funny because in the documentary business, you don’t often have access to mass markets and you don’t have products that can be sold to lots of consumers.’

French cable channel Voyage, which bought the series, also linked up with the music project, producing and airing spots advertising both the CDs and the program, and offering contests to win the CD set. In exchange, the Voyage logo appears on the packaging. ‘Everybody is trying to promote this program because everybody will be seen,’ explains Catteau. ‘The small cable channels are very business-minded and like to be involved in business besides broadcasting.’

If the project is successful, Catteau plans to continue the series and develop others for ZED’s various docs. These include the 13 x 26-minute series Sea Legends and his current project, The Masters of the Spirits – another 13 x 26-minute doc coproduced by Voyage, Italy’s RaiTre and La Cinquième in France, with a $120,000 per episode budget .

Technology talks

Apart from limited primetime slots and the need for a tremendous amount of fore-planning, documentary producers often find licensing opportunities are controlled by broadcasters. ‘The BBC would normally have merchandising rights,’ says Hargreaves. ‘It would be very difficult for us to work with somebody who retained these rights because there would be no brand consistency. It would be impossible to develop a licensing program split down the middle.’

Clark suggests producers with an interest in merchandising should plan to enter any agreement as a financial partner: ‘If you go in hat-in-hand and say, ‘I want to do this show, but I want the rights to the score and I want the rights to the video game and I want the rights to this and that,’ they’ll ask you to leave their office. But, if you partner on the project, you end up writing the contract together.’

Interest in ancillary markets is being facilitated with the advent of new technologies, such as DVDs. ‘[DVD] set a fire under the home video market and inspired the creative side because of its higher image and sound resolution,’ says Clark. ‘I think there’s also a lot of interest in DVD-ROM, which offers interactive platforms with high resolutions, tremendous depth of content and no lag-time in responses. We’re exploring DVD for Sahara and we assume DVD will be a component of everything we do.’

‘The market is moving away from home videos and moving more and more towards DVD,’ agrees Selvey. ‘In many parts of Europe, home videos are being replaced on the shelf by DVDs. In order to maintain shelf space, we are having to go aggressively into DVDs.’

Selvey also notes DVD technology provides more flexibility than home video and allows a variety of platforms to come together. Editorial material from books, web links specified to the region in which the DVD will be sold, making-of segments and clips from other films are currently used on Discovery’s DVDs.

Perhaps most importantly, attitudes towards the potential for successful TV-linked merchandising initiatives are changing. ‘You do not go into a project with the idea of creating a program but with the idea of acquiring digital assets that can be re-purposed across various platforms,’ explains Clark. ‘Everybody is trying to avoid thinking that your linear-time program is somehow the one thing you should put all your energy into and other ancillaries are further down the line. Instead of seeing it as a vertical system, it is increasingly seen as a horizontal array of ancillaries that are of equal value.’


National Geographic expands kids

licensing program

By Allison Dunfield, Kidscreen

National Geographic is expanding its consumer products program beyond publishing and video to include a realm of high-end specialty kids toys and games. The products will be available in North America exclusively at the high-end Museum Company chain, which counts 100 stores in its roster.

A shop-in-shop area will be created for the launch of the line, which is planned for September and October of this year. Merch will be aimed at kids ages toddler and up, and all product will be created by the Museum Company’s exclusive licensees and branded with the National Geographic kids logo.

Each item will be based on learning. For example, dinosaur and other play figures will contain package inserts so children will be able to learn more about the habitats and eating habits of animals. Other products include puzzles, plush, arts and crafts items, model and excavation kits and role-playing items. National Geographic will also expand the program into categories not traditionally associated with the magazine, such as a line of tongue-in-cheek T-shirts by Joe Blow of Maryland. All net proceeds feed directly into the exploration, education and environment programs of National Geographic.

John Dumbacher, VP of licensing and merchandising for National Geographic Enterprises Group, says this is the first major licensing push for kids items. Licensing was previously handled by outside agent United Media, but now that the National Geographic Channel is expected to launch in the U.S. at the end of this year, Dumbacher says the company wants to be able to extend the brand across platforms from television to merchandise.

About The Author
Managing editor with realscreen publication, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Darah is an award-winning journalist who has spent over two decades covering a wide range of issues from real estate and urban development to immigration, politics and human rights, primarily with The Vancouver Sun. Prior to joining realscreen, she was editor of Stream Daily, realscreen's sister publication covering the dynamic global digital video industry. She also served a stint as a war reporter in Afghanistan for television and print, and was a national business blogger with Yahoo Canada.