"Twenty years ago, if you had a series on terrestrial TV, every retailer wanted to bite your hand off," recalls Nancy Fowler, head of sales at DIC Entertainment. "It's a bit different now," an understatement if ever there was one. Fowler believes one of the reasons for the dearth of shelf space is that "there are now so many more properties looking for shelf space that retailers have an almost limitless choice, and so, of course, they will only pick the 100 percent home bankers."
Also, as Jean-Philippe Randisi, vice president, consumer products, Europe, MTV Networks, points out, "The television landscape is increasingly fragmented, and the retail sector is increasingly consolidated, which combine to make the business much more complicated for all concerned."
All of which begs the question: "What can be done about it?" Tim Collins, Endemol's head of consumer products, thinks the answer lies in the industry's business models. "In terms of marketing or promotion," he says, "I don't think there's much to be done that hasn't already been tried." He believes one of the reasons for the current lack of shelf space is that retailers are risk averse. "And I don't think licensors help that sentiment by asking for as much as we can get in the way of advances and guarantees on top of a royalty of between 10 and 14 percent. I know," he continues, "that my peers will read this and wonder when it was, exactly, that I misplaced my mind, but I think we should look more toward a JV model in which the licensor abandons the minimum guarantee/ advance in return for a commitment to a minimum investment in product development, design, and marketing, as well as proper retail listings."
MTV Networks' Randisi, however, thinks there is room for more innovation in marketing, although he acknowledges that such opportunities are not available to everyone. "Nickelodeon," he says, "is a special animal because we are both licensor and broadcaster, and this gives us the opportunity to back our properties at retail with packages that not only offer traditional exposure but also other possibilities, such as support in storylines, and exposure across multiple platforms, offering new retail solutions and changing the dynamic with the retailer." As an example, Randisi cites last year's SpongeBob SquarePants promotion with German chain Kardstadt. "Not only did we have a themed week on TV," notes Randisi, "but the store also sponsored all the mobile content during the four weeks, giving directions to the nearest local store." Kardstadt saw an increase in traffic of 30 percent, and similar promotions now are planned for the UK and France.
DIC's Fowler thinks timing is important, too. "Sometimes," she insists, "you just have to be patient." Fowler cites as an example this month's launch of Slumber Party Girls, which DIC developed in association with Geffen. Slumber Party Girls will launch on the DIC-branded block on CBS, "but," says Fowler, "we will not be looking for an immediate retail launch. Instead, we will make retailers aware of the property; feed them supportive information such as ratings, club membership, downloads, and DVD and CD sales; and generally allow the property to prove itself with a view to a full retail launch in 2007."
One reason for this approach is Slumber Party Girls' lack of recognition equity at launch. But, even where there is enormous equity, Fowler can still see merit in this "softly, softly" approach. "When McDonald's approached us and asked us to manage its brand, we thought it would be perfect to put some of the fun back into the brand by revisiting its lovable old characters. But," admits Fowler, "just because we thought this would work didn't necessarily mean it would work. So, we decided to road test the idea with a limited range of adult fashion wear." Four limited-edition T-shirts were marketed through specialty fashion outlets, generating huge publicity, as well as sales. The range since has expanded and moved into Target and Wal-Mart.
Timing was the reason BBCWorldwide launched the licensing campaign for its preschool property, Charlie and Lola, in the U.S. before the UK. Annette Banham, marketing director, children's, BBCWorldwide, explains, "The broadcasting rights for the U.S. were held by our partner, Tiger Aspect, which sold them to Disney Playhouse. Disney went to air with Charlie and Lola eight months before the BBC, and we saw no point in missing out on the opportunity."
But for some time, a significant and growing constituency has taken the view that "if you can't get it on the shelf, put it on the 'Net." Established in April 2005 by Sally Dickson, an experienced licensing industry specialist, Creative Catalogues Online is offering an innovative variation on this model. The company will design an e-retail site for a brand, link it to the brand's existing Website, and then run the service, manage the brand, liaise with customers, and pay the brand owner a royalty while retaining the sales profits just as any other licensee would. "Setting up an e-shop," Dickson points out, "can be expensive—£20,000 (U.S. $38,000) minimum—and once up and running, it needs to be managed. If you are a brand manager," she continues, "you don't want to spend your time managing an e-shop, or tracking the Web agency that's doing it for you. It is the perfect solution to the problem of finding shelf space with conventional retailers."
Of course, finding shelf space is only one of the problems facing the licensing industry; pressure on airtime is a real problem also. Here, too, though, the Internet offers solutions. British animation house Aardman, responsible for Wallace and Grommit and Chicken Run, partnered with Atom Films in 2000 on the launch of Angry Kid on the Web. Since then, reports Aardman's head of marketing and licensing, Sean Clarke, the property has had "close to 40 million downloads." As a result, in 2003, Angry Kid launched on mobile on the UK's 3 network and now has secured a slot on all the UK's top mobile services, where, according to Clarke, "it is consistently one of the best performers." Aardman makes the 52 one-minute films available, as well as wallpapers. Clarke says the company now has recouped all of its development and production costs from Web and wireless exploitation, and is starting to license the property to traditional television platforms.
Aardman also established a new unit, Aardman International, under the leadership of Miles Bullough with the specific task of developing content for new media. The unit will launch officially at MIPCOM, because, explains Clarke, "there is now genuine media convergence, and you cannot realistically talk about one without talking about all of them." But, despite this success, and Aardman's enthusiasm, Clarke reports, "when it comes to new media, retailers and manufacturers are still pretty apathetic. In the UK," he claims, "they are still not convinced about cabsat."
Even the U.S. networks are paying attention to the power of the 'Net. In spring 2005, NBC developed a pilot for a sitcom, Nobody's Watching. When it uploaded the show to YouTube, it discovered that, on the contrary, people were watching in significant numbers. The pilot has been downloaded more than 600,000 times, and NBC has ordered a run of Webisodes with a view to ordering a broadcast prime-time series this season.
But the Web isn't the only place companies are looking to "develop out of the box." Canadian animation house Decode developed a series, Dudson, for the Toronto subway. Decode partner Beth Stevenson explains, "Dudson was developed specifically for the Toronto subway after we got the idea from a colleague of ours, Steven Ching, whose company, A Go Go, makes content specifically for the Hong Kong transport system. Steven," she goes on, "has generated significant licensing on the back of this exposure. We see screens being installed everywhere, not just in transport systems, but also in malls, elevators, absolutely everywhere. In fact," she reveals, "we already are making some content for Target stores in the U.S."
Dudson is relatively new, having so far run on the Toronto subway for just three months, although it does have another two-and-a-half years to run. As a result, it only has launched in retail in the kiosks on the subway system. Although there is a deal with a small Canadian digital channel, Bite TV, which was a funding requirement, Stevenson says Decode will not be looking to exploit the existing 15-second shorts elsewhere in Canada because "we are keen to look at the development of a more traditional television series, and these days broadcasters tend to want ancillary rights as 'gifts with purchase,' and so we are holding these back to meet that need when a traditional series finally is commissioned."