Screen Gems

Chuck Crisafulli is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Love the show? Watch it every week? Well, why not make it a part of every day--by buying the tie-in plush toy, the comic book, the board game, the interactive software, the drink mix, the collectible plate and . . . the cheese.

Welcome to the world of TV merchandising, where the success of a program is measured not in ratings points but in trifles and trinkets, apparel and gadgets.

It's no secret that children's programming has often encouraged its young viewers to head directly to toy stores. Parents who have tried vainly to keep Power Rangers out of the house can appreciate the formidable influence of a TV-to-toy connection. A decade ago, merchandising was still chiefly the domain of Saturday morning kids' shows, with adult programming generating mainly promotional T-shirts and coffee mugs.

But the licensing of logos, character likenesses, catch phrases and concepts from films and TV programs has become big business--a business that generated $17 billion in sales in North America last year, according to the Licensing Letter, a trade newsletter covering the licensed merchandise industry.

Film- and TV-related products compete on the same retail shelves but are the results of very different strategies. A film's merchandising campaign can be planned a year or two before release and typically makes itself known in an all-out barrage of products tied to the opening of a movie--witness the multitude of cuddly hunchbacks suddenly available at toy stores and fast-food counters.

TV merchandising can't be quite as calculated; no one knows what each season's hits are going to be or whether a show will find an audience interested in any related merchandise. The owners of TV programs--typically studios rather than networks in the case of prime-time shows--must take a somewhat subtler approach than filmmakers do.

TV products are niche-marketed--specifically tailored to the perceived tastes of a show's audience--and gradually made available as a show becomes more popular. The success of that approach has moved TV-inspired products far beyond T-shirts and has made the licensing of prime-time programs one of the hottest trends in the merchandising industry.

And so while kids are still converting Saturday morning TV time into dollars spent at Toys R Us, avid adult TV fans can now also express their devotion to a program of choice by buying show-related products for almost every conceivable use and occasion--from "Star Trek" birthday cards to "Cheers" cocktail paraphernalia, from "X-Files" trading cards to "ER" safety goggles. And--only in Australia, unfortunately--Homer wannabes can up the calorie count of their sandwiches with slices of "Simpsons" brand cheese.

The toy market is still sizable, with $20 billion in toy sales in 1995; nearly half of all toys sold in 1995 were licensed products. But categories of licensed products appealing to adults take in much more money--licensed stationery and paper goods alone took in more than $2 billion last year, while licensed apparel racked up more than $4 billion. And the fact that a single film like "Jurassic Park" can pull in $1 billion in retail sales of related merchandise has impressed the TV world enough to make prime-time merchandising a priority.

"When I got into this five years ago, there was very little prime-time merchandise," says Nancy Allen, president of Marquee Images, a New York-based company that oversees the licensing and merchandising of such programs as "Seinfeld," "Homicide," "The Single Guy" and "The Tonight Show."

"But it's an evolving market. Adults are fans of shows just like kids are. People do stand around the water cooler and talk about the things that happened the night before on shows. If we can capture that on some kind of product, it allows the show to live a little longer than just once a week. But with shows like these, we're not looking for the next Mutant Ninja Turtles. The process has to be handled differently--it has to be a little more sophisticated."

*

That sophistication turns up in attempts to match the "tone" of a product with the tone of a particular show and in attempts to make sure that the products offered are ones that will be appreciated by a particular show's audience. The comedic or dramatic tone of a show is also a large consideration in just how much merchandise to make available--some of TV's hottest shows do not turn into the kind of merchandising cash cows one might expect, because their content does not make them easily merchandisable.

As vice president of property development at Warner Bros., Michael Peikoff has had the opportunity to merchandise a pair of hot NBC hits--"Friends" and "ER"--and has taken very different strategies with each.

"With the kind of fun show like 'Friends,' we've been able to put out everything from beach towels to cookbooks to greeting cards to sleepwear to neckties, and they can all fit in with the spirit of the show," he says. " 'ER' is a fabulous program, but we also knew right away that it would be bad strategy to bastardize it. We made sure that we didn't put out any compromising merchandise. Viewers can buy medical scrubs with the show logo and the protective eye wear the characters wear during surgery, but you won't see an 'ER' medical kit for children."

Typically, comedies make the jump to merchandise more easily than dramas. The loopy characters of "Frasier" have turned up as computer software, posters, greeting cards, postcards and an Eddie the Dog calendar, while the grittier "Homicide" has chiefly been merchandised with shirts bearing the show's logo.

But if a series has an unusually dedicated fan base, the product will come. Sci-fi lovers who watch "Babylon 5" can extend the thrills with a range of products that includes toys, computer games, comic books and even a line of authorized costumes. Science fiction has, in fact, given the merchandising world its grandest triumph: the "Star Trek" franchise, which during the past 30 years has generated $1 billion in retail sales. While a hit show may garner half a dozen licensing deals, there are currently more than 200 companies around the world putting out "Star Trek" products.

The "Star Trek" franchise is one of the grand triumphs of the merchandising world, with highly successful products that now include Mr. Spock Christmas tree ornaments from Hallmark, portraits of the Enterprise on collectible plates from the Franklin Mint and several cutting-edge interactive computer games based on "The Next Generation" and "Deep Space Nine." Also, as of this fall, fans can boldly go where no toy has gone before, with the two newest, most improbable Enterprise crew members: "Star Trek" Barbie and Ken (she's from engineering; he carries a phaser).

Even with the built-in appeal of such long-lived characters and the obvious affection a large audience has for the program (and the movie spinoffs), matching the spirit of the shows to appropriate products can still be a challenge.

"It's not a no-brainer," says Andrea Hein, president of Viacom Consumer Products. "The 'Star Trek' merchandising program has been carefully crafted to reflect the tone of the shows and the way they're watched by fans. There's some humor that's mostly generated from the original series because 30 years later seeing Capt. Kirk hugging a green woman is kind of campy--it makes sense to use that image on a funny card. On the other hand, Capt. Picard is not seen as a comic figure, and so 'The Next Generation' products go in a different direction. The products have to stay true to the way the audience views each show."

"You've really got to understand the show you're working with, and you've got to respect its core audience," says Michael Mallone, who as vice president of merchandising and licensing for 20th Century Fox oversees products related to "The Simpsons" and "The X-Files." "The whole point of these products is for them to be something to someone, rather than just another thing to everyone."

*

Finding just the right something has become a lot trickier, though, as TV merchandise competes on retailers' shelves not just with other TV shows but also with licensed products from films, the sports world, even products sporting corporate logos.

"It's a very competitive market," says Karen Raugust, executive editor of the Licensing Letter. "In the past you might have seen 'Seinfeld' on a T-shirt, and that would have been cool enough for you to buy it. Now the merchandisers really have to focus on the product--it's got to be something people want to buy, whether it's got an image from a TV show on it or not."

Timing is also crucial. Licensees and retailers are usually not very interested in taking a chance on products related to a new show, because if the show fails in the ratings or is quickly canceled, they're stuck with goods nobody wants.

"When I started working with 'Seinfeld' four years ago, it wasn't an easy sell," says Allen of Marquee Images. "The people representing the retailers didn't really watch the show at that point and had no idea that this was something very different that was about to catch on. But what little we put out flew out of the store, and soon there was a huge demand for 'Seinfeld' stuff. So we put out everything from board games to a Kramer poster to talking Kramer dolls. And we probably had two dozen requests to actually put out Kramer's coffee-table book about coffee tables, which had appeared in an episode. We've since cut way back because Jerry decided he just didn't want that much stuff out there."

The success of merchandise can actually outlive the show it grows from. It was after "Cheers" had come to an end that Viacom decided to begin its very successful line of "Cheers" bars in airports. And the mining of nostalgic properties has become a major trend in the licensing world--currently available are such items as Three Stooges golf balls and "Beverly Hillbillies" commemorative plates. An "I Dream of Jeannie" doll was unveiled last month at the annual licensing show in New York, the pivotal event of the merchandising world.

"Jeannie" belongs to Sony Signatures, the licensing arm for Columbia TriStar Television. Regarding more current Sony properties, the decision has been made to give the Fox drama "Party of Five" a merchandising push.

"The show's been popular, but it's just getting to the stage where its fans are interested in getting their hands on some products and where it's proved itself enough so that retailers are interested in carrying the products," says Dell Furano, president and chief executive officer of Sony Signatures. "But still, you have to think hard about what you put out there. Yes, we'll do a poster; yes, a calendar; and, yes, a screen saver. But we don't want a collectible plate--that doesn't fit the audience. Yes to a beach towel--no to a QVC show."

Merchandisers also understand that, for adult consumers, the quality of a product is given greater weight.

"A kid just wants the toy from their favorite show. They're not thinking about how long that toy's going to last them," says Neil Newman, vice president of marketing at Viacom Consumer Products. "Adults worry a lot more about what they're getting for the money. And there's a greater choice available to them--a 'Cheers' mug is competing with a Starbucks mug or a mug from Crate & Barrel--and one person, no matter what shows he or she watches, is only going to buy so many mugs."

As far as Hollywood deal making goes, the merchandising process is fairly straightforward. A studio, such as Warner Bros. or Paramount, owns the rights to the television programs it produces. When it makes a licensing deal, a manufacturer is granted the use of a logo or likeness from a program, provided that the manufacturer adheres to strict quality controls and usage guidelines. The manufacturer gets the licensed product out to retailers and pays back the studio with a percentage of sales, typically 7% to 15%.

Contractually, the creators and producers of a show have little say in what products become available to the public, but in practice the merchandising of many of TV's biggest shows is still guided by the creative minds the shows sprang from originally.

"Fox owns the merchandising rights, but they've been very good about keeping me in the loop," says Chris Carter, creator and executive producer of "The X-Files." "They could put out whatever they wanted to, but they've been very cooperative and deferential about how the show should be treated."

"The X-Files" is one of the most popular shows to emerge in the last few seasons and has won an unusually devoted audience that continues to grow. But as a series whose chief appeal is in its atmosphere of mystery and darkness, it is exactly the kind of program whose spirit could easily be compromised by a pile of product. Carter was originally reluctant to do any merchandising but approves of Fox's current less-is-more approach with the show.

"I'm against merchandising generally because it just seems like a grab," Carter says. "A chance to cash in on the popularity of something by putting the name of it on anything. With 'The X-Files,' merchandising works against the show because the show questions the very institutions that make merchandising possible. I was very concerned that 'X-Files' merchandise would be seen as nothing more than money-grubbing. But at the same time, the demand from fans has been so great--and I do feel some responsibility to respond to the people who really love the show.

"I would nix 'X-Files' action figures and boxer shorts, but I've been really impressed with the original art for the collecting cards that are out, and I think some of the art in the comic books is amazing. I'm also particularly proud of the album of music inspired by the show. Fox hasn't dumped 'X-Files' products into every discount chain--they've put out a few high-quality items in a few places, and I feel these things add to the spirit of the show rather than cheapening it."

'Simpsons" creator Matt Groening enjoys a similarly cooperative relationship with Fox, and his office receives a steady stream of pitches from manufacturers for "Simpsons"-related products.

"I don't control the tidal wave of 'Simpsons' success, but I try to surf on it as best I can," he says, laughing. "It always amazes me to see what 'The Simpsons' can be associated with. In Australia you can buy 'Simpsons' bread and 'Simpsons' cheese. And the latest proposal somebody sent me was for a 'Simpsons' asthma inhaler!"

It's unlikely that the inhaler will get an OK from Groening or Fox. After a glut of products in response to the series' initial, unexpected success, the producer and the studio have become much choosier about what products receive a "Simpsons" blessing. They have also had to battle an unusually large market for bootleg "Simpsons" merchandise, most recently succeeding in preventing an Australian brewery from putting out Duff Beer, the fictitious brand seen frequently on the show.

"We had some legitimate requests to put out the beer, but that's something I said we absolutely shouldn't do. I wasn't going to have 'The Simpsons' encouraging kids to drink alcohol," Groening says. "As for the unlicensed stuff, I remember in the summer of 1990 it felt like I couldn't walk a block in any direction without seeing someone in a Simpsons T-shirt, and it was usually a bootleg one. You have to fight all the bootlegging to retain the rights, but I've certainly been amused by the absurdity of the whole thing."

Given all the manufacturers and retailers who would love to be part of the success of "The Simpsons," it's a bit surprising to hear that Groening was rebuffed the one time he initiated a plan for merchandise.

"I wanted the Simpsons to have their own cereal that would be marketed like all those highly sugared ones in big brash, vibrantly colored boxes, but this would've been a cereal that wasn't actually bad for you. I wanted Bart to market it, with him on the box saying, 'There's no sugar in it, but you can put as much as you want on it!' A sugarless cereal--just my idea for a small public service to the kids of America. But we couldn't get one cereal company to go along with the idea of a healthy cereal for kids. I said, 'How about a low-sugar cereal?' Nope, not good enough."

Groening was at least able to work out his frustrations through a later episode of the show. "We had Bart eating Frosty Krusty Flakes, and the slogan on the box said, 'Only sugar has more sugar!' "

The bootlegging and the cereal incident haven't totally soured Groening on the merchandising of the show--he's willing to credit "Simpsons" products with playing an important part in the education of his two young children: "I got very excited about the Simpsons chess set, brought one home, and my kids have learned to play chess as a result. So I can say that the licensing of 'The Simpsons' has done at least one bit of good that I know of."

Writer-director Amy Heckerling and her partner, Pamela Pettler, are in high spirits at an office on the Paramount lot, having just returned from a meeting with some merchandising execs. The pair are working as executive producers for ABC's new fall series "Clueless," based on Heckerling's hit 1995 film. Their giddiness is the result of their latest peek at the prototypes for a Mattel line of "Clueless" dolls that will be available as the show premieres.

"We cooed and giggled," Heckerling says with a laugh. "All the outfits are so tiny and so cute--we wanted to start playing."

It's unusual for a full line of dolls to be launched with a TV show before the show has proved itself to be popular, but the movie's popularity made the show's intended audience familiar enough with the characters that a merchandising deal was possible. Heckerling says the doll deal has brought her "Clueless" experience full circle.

"What's odd for me is that the entire 'Clueless' idea started out with me and my daughter playing games with Barbies. Some of the things we worked out in the Barbie games became parts of the movie. The movie's become a TV show, and now the show's turning into Barbies. It's kind of strange, but frankly the whole time we were making the movie, I was saying, 'Let's make dolls.' Nobody listened. But in TV they're much more responsive to that end of it."

Pettler says the studio and the toy maker have also made a point of keeping the producers involved in the process, noting: "Mattel is happy to show us everything, and we're constantly being asked what's coming up in the show--new looks, new catch phrases. It's their product and they're the toy experts, but they seem delighted to have us around."

With the producers and toy company working that closely together, might the creative content of the show be steered to enhance the merchandising potential? Pettler doesn't think so.

"Actually," she says, "it's the merchandising people who have said very clearly to us that the show is the important thing and the merchandise will come naturally from that. We're not going to decide on the merchandise we'd like to see and write a show to go with it."

The line between creation and commerce does get tested, though.

Says Heckerling: "One of the things that happened in the meetings with the Mattel people was that they said they'd love to have little pets to go with the dolls, and they asked us if there were going to be any animals in the show. We found ourselves thinking, 'What kind of dog would Cher, our lead character, want to own? How could we work a dog into the show?' Then it was like, 'Wait a minute--the dog's going to become like a whole other character to write for. Do we want to spend that time and effort giving Cher a dog--or should we give her a boyfriend?' "

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
66°