Can Hub Rally Rivals to Play With Hasbro?
May 17, 2010
Will we see Barbie on "My Little Pony"?
When the Hub launches Oct. 10, the kids' cable network will have more than just increased competition from the Disney Channel, Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network to contend with. The joint venture between Discovery and Hasbro, the world's second-largest toy company, will also have to sell itself to fellow toy marketers such as Mattel.
Hub CEO Margaret Loesch, a 30-year veteran producer of animated shows including Hasbro properties "G.I. Joe," "Transformers" and "My Little Pony," is keenly aware of the network's challenges in the marketplace -- as well as from government scrutiny. That's why the network will launch in 60 million homes with only 25% of its programming based on Hasbro toys, while the rest of its slate will be a mix of animation and live-action shows geared at different demographics across multiple day-parts, but primarily focused on children 6 to 12 years old.
"We're a joint venture, and one of our owners is a toy company, so our success is dependent on being open for business with everyone," Ms. Loesch said. "Seventy-five percent of our programming is not Hasbro, but we love our Hasbro brands and they're some of the drivers of this network. Equally so, we want to be diverse with our advertisers."
As the No. 2 marketer in the toy market, Hasbro faces an uphill battle in luring its top competitor, Mattel, to buy airtime on the network. According to two executives familiar with discussions, an early meeting between Mattel executives and the Hub ended with the top toy marketer questioning why it would spend a penny on a Hasbro-owned network. Those conversations have since advanced, said Ms. Loesch and Brooke Goldstein, the Hub's senior VP-ad sales.
"When we first met with them, they thought Brooke was out of her mind, but we're softening them up," Ms. Loesch said. "I think their skepticism is diminishing, but it's still there a bit."
Ms. Goldstein added, "Toy companies are out there to sell product, and we're going to get eyeballs and steal share from [rival networks]. Just from a business perspective, it feels like it would be a disservice not to create partnerships."
And indeed, with $399 million spent on measured media in 2008 and 2009, according to Kantar Media, Mattel still has a lot of pennies to spend. Michelle Chidoni, a Mattel spokeswoman, said the company does not publicly comment on its intentions to purchase any network or medium. "We have met with the Hub and are in the process of evaluating all placement options available to us."
Brenda Andolia, brand marketing director for Mattel subsidiary Fisher-Price, issued a similar statement. "We have met with the Hub, as we do with all candidate media vendors, and are evaluating the best placement options to pursue."
As the Hub goes to the upfront marketplace, it will also be selling less commercial inventory than its competitors -- a bold move for a new network that will launch with Nielsen ratings from day one. Federal Communications Commission-mandated restrictions dictate that an hour's worth of children's programming can only have 12 minutes of commercial time Monday through Friday, and 10 1/2 minutes on Saturday and Sunday. The Hub will only sell 10 1/2 minutes of ads an hour throughout the week, a tradition upheld from Discovery Kids, the channel it will replace.
Additionally, the network will have to vet the placement of its ads very thoroughly. Ads for Transformers toys, for example, can't air within or adjacent to the "Transformers" show due to government restrictions. The same goes for other Hasbro-branded programs that also have products to advertise at retail. Ms. Goldstein said those shows will be pitched to complementary toy brands as a way to hyper-target certain young audiences (think Mattel's Polly Pocket advertising during "My Little Pony").
"If you're trying to reach girls 3 to 5 and you have another brand that goes after that audience, someone like that can own that property," she said.
Of course, not all toy companies are resisting the Hub in its early launch phases. American Greetings Inc. is reviving the 1980s Strawberry Shortcake franchise for a millennial audience, with a new line of dolls expected to accompany its relaunch. Additionally, American Greetings is producing two other programs, "Twisted Whiskers" and "Maryoku Yummy," for the Hub. Ms. Loesch said the network is also looking at Mattel's portfolio of brands to see if there's potential to develop programming as well.
"We want to find programs where there's a little bit of buzz about them," she said, pointing to the anecdotal nostalgia many fans of the original Hasbro series from the 1980s have already shared with her in recent months. "There's other shows out there where, if we can acquire the rights, we'd love to do a retro look back and have wraparounds with some of the original creative talent and voice talent and have a celebration to tell some of the behind-the-scenes stories."
A peek at what the new kids' network has to offer
The Hub's first programming slate is a mix of revived franchises, new properties and family-targeted nostalgia blocks, with some A-list talent attached. As its competitors Disney Channel and Nickelodeon continue to go after the older tween audiences with their late-afternoon and prime-time programming, the Hub is going after preschoolers in the morning, kids 6-12 in the afternoon and families in prime time. Here's an exclusive peek at the Hub's lineup.
Some of the Hub's most high-profile shows will be updated versions of well-known Hasbro programs from the 1980s, including "G.I. Joe," "Transformers" and "My Little Pony." The latter is being re-imagined for young girls by "Powerpuff Girls" creator Lauren Faust, while the new "Transformers Prime" will feature the voice of Peter Cullen, the original voice of Optimus Prime from the animated series as well as the Michael Bay-directed feature films. Additionally, "Transformers" feature screenwriters Alex Kurtzman and Robert Orci will act as showrunners. "G.I. Joe Renegades" will spotlight the Joes on the lam from government forces and the agents of Cobra, a storyline that echoes the recent feature film released by Paramount last summer.
Other Hasbro shows
Also on deck is a new version of "Pound Puppies," featuring the voice of 88-year-old phenom Betty White as Agatha McLeish. "Family Game Night," meanwhile, is a live-action game show that will feature families playing tHasbro games such as Monopoly, Scrabble and Cranium.
"Kids in the Hall" vet Dave Foley and "Revenge of the Nerds" star Curtis Armstrong will lend their voices to "Dan Vs.," an original animated action series from Starz Media's Film Roman. "GooseBumps" author R.L. Stine will present "R.L. Stine's The Haunting Hour," a live-action anthology horror series. Preschool-targeted "The WotWots" is an animated show about puppet-like aliens that land in a local zoo, from Academy Award-winning studio Weta Workshop and produced by Pukeko Pictures. American Greetings Properties is prepping U.S. premieres of original series "Maryoku Yummy" and "Twisted Whiskers." Other new shows include "The 99" (from Teshkeel Media and Endemol), "Animal Mechanicals" (from Halifax Film), "Cosmic Quantum Ray" (from Moonscoop) and "Dentora Quest" (from Dentsu).
The Hub will exclusively re-air old episodes of the Jim Henson Company's "Fraggle Rock," and is also planning a late-night block of old "G.I. Joe" and "Transformers" episodes to attract parents and young adult males nostalgic for the '80s-era cartoons. Also getting a makeover is "Strawberry Shortcake," the American Greetings character that started a popular line of dolls in the late '80s.