‘Mighty Morphin’ Mania : The Company Behind the Top Children’s TV Series Shows Its Marketing Muscle
Move over Ninja Turtles. The “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” have arrived.
The live-action television series is the highest-rated children’s program, having swept the nation since its debut on the Fox Children’s Network in August. A line of action figurines based on the “Power Rangers"--a group of teen-agers who transform into super-heroes--was the hottest toy this Christmas. More than 1 million “Power Ranger” videocassettes have sold in the past two weeks through PolyGram Video. A movie deal is in the works.
All of which could transform Saban Entertainment, the Burbank production company behind the “Power Rangers,” into a force to be reckoned with in the television industry. For 13 years, founder Haim Saban, an energetic Israeli immigrant, has fought to win recognition for his company.
He has had some success. Known mostly for its lightweight cartoon shows, Saban has another highly rated program in its animated “X-Men,” based on the comic-book super-heroes. Saban is also a big supplier of children’s programming to Asia and Europe, and has made some headway in an attempt to diversify into prime time, with such miniseries as “To Catch a Killer” with Brian Dennehy. The company’s move into feature films is more dubious: Saban hasn’t yet found a distributor for “Blindfold: Acts of Obsession” starring Shannen Doherty of “Beverly Hills 90210" fame.
Privately held Saban doesn’t make its financial results public, and Haim Saban would say only that the company is profitable and its revenues are in the “very high eight figures"--which puts them somewhere below $100 million.
But with “Power Rangers,” Saban could get much bigger, very fast.
And that’s something even an ambitious guy like Haim Saban--who tried to sell “Power Rangers” to networks for eight years before Fox committed--wouldn’t have boasted of a few months ago.
“You don’t stick with something for eight years unless you believe in it,” Saban said. “But I didn’t think it would turn into the phenomenon it has.”
“Phenomenon” might not be an exaggeration. On Saturday mornings and weekdays, “Power Rangers’ ” ratings have soared to No. 1 among children aged 2 to 11. As for the toys--a line of action figurines that sell for $10 to $50--a pre-Christmas shortage prompted a buying frenzy that hadn’t been seen since Cabbage Patch dolls. And even then, customers weren’t fighting in the aisles.
“Now people run in and push people out of the way to get there first,” said Lisa Terrell, a merchandise manager at a Target store in Northridge.
“It’s a phenomenon that we don’t quite understand,” said Carolyn Brookter, a Target Stores spokeswoman. “As soon as we get them in, they’re gone.”
Bandai Co., the Japanese toy maker that licensed the Power Rangers characters from Saban and its Japanese production partner, Toei Co., produced 600,000 of the plastic figurines in time for Christmas. But stores across the country sold out quickly. Saban now estimates that based on demand from retailers, 12 million of the toys could be sold.
Now some are suggesting that Power Rangers has the potential to become an industry unto itself, similar to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise. And for Saban, which collects licensing fees--5% to 10% of wholesale sales is typical for the toy industry--that’s money in the bank. Saban also collects a similar licensing fee on the videocassettes.
Saban hopes to announce a “Power Rangers” movie deal next month. He’s also talking theme parks, “Power Rangers” martial arts studios and gyms, and more merchandise.
Haim Saban is a former record promoter who broke into the TV business by producing musical scores for kids’ shows. On a 1985 trip to Japan, Saban saw a children’s series filled with monsters and huge robots that destroy buildings. He liked the intentionally campy concept, but knew it had to be Americanized to sell here.
Teaming with the Japanese producer, Toei, Saban combined the Japanese action film footage with new footage featuring American actors as the Power Rangers. The Rangers are adolescent karate experts who battle with the monster army of sorceress Rita Repulsa, Empress of Evil. The costumes are tacky, and the special effects are so cheesy that the “Godzilla” films look sophisticated in comparison.
Saban said he shopped the show to “every single network, station, toy company, merchandising company, whoever would have a meeting with me. They didn’t get it.”
Not until Margaret Loesch, president of the Fox Children’s Network.
Loesch recalled the day, 18 months ago, when she first saw “Power Rangers.” Haim Saban had shown her a dozen other cartoons he had purchased from foreign producers. Loesch was not impressed. “I wanted something different, offbeat, something zany that kids would pay attention to,” she said.
Saban reluctantly showed her “Power Rangers,” expecting the usual response. After three minutes, Loesch said, “That’s it, I’ll buy it.”
Loesch, it turns out, was a fan of Japanese monster movies. “Power Rangers,” with its silly monsters and and corny fight scenes, struck a chord. Loesch’s instincts were quickly borne out. In the week before Halloween, she said, her office had to devote one fax machine to sending out drawings of the Power Rangers so mothers could fashion costumes.
“Adults don’t get it,” said Loesch. But the response to the program “is unprecedented in my 19 years’ experience in kids’ shows.”
The show isn’t without critics. Loesch acknowledged that in certain quarters it’s been said that “Power Rangers” is destined to be a one-day wonder--hot today, history tomorrow.
Robert Solomon, chief executive of Dakin Inc., a Woodland Hills toy company whose products include Barney plush toys and Beavis and Butt-Head items, warned of the danger of overstocking toys in anticipation of huge demand. Such was the downfall of Coleco Industries Inc., with its Cabbage Patch dolls, and Worlds of Wonder Inc., the company behind Teddy Ruxpin. Both ended up in bankruptcy.
“When the party’s over, there’s a heavy hangover,” Solomon said.
What will keep Power Rangers popular, said Robert McCoy, associate publisher of Toy & Hobby World magazine, is savvy marketing. “If you ask Mattel, it takes a lot of sophisticated marketing to keep Barbie as strong as it is.”
Loesch and Saban say they’re keenly aware of the risks. They hope to keep “Power Rangers” fresh by introducing new characters and broadening plot lines. Loesch has ordered 40 more episodes, but she admitted, “I think it’s going to be harder next year.”
Saban also insists he’s being selective with licensing deals, for fear of overexposing Power Rangers. “We’re turning down a lot more than we’re accepting,” he said.
“We’re onto a franchise here that could last for many years.”