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New Kids' TV Channel Raises Product-Placement Concerns

Joe Flint and Dawn Chmielewski
Los Angeles Times
October 5, 2010

Margaret Loesch is accustomed to a fracas.

When the TV executive was running Fox Kids almost two decades ago, one of her biggest shows was "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers," a live-action series about five karate-kicking teens battling evil that was blasted for being too violent. Even first lady Hillary Clinton got involved, declaring that the Spandex-clad characters had "no place in any lineup described as children's programming."

"I was accused of ruining a generation of kids," Loesch recalled in an interview.

Those days may start to look quaint to Loesch as she embarks on her latest venture — chief executive of the Hub, a channel aimed at kids that launches Sunday and is co-owned by cable giant Discovery Communications Inc. and Hasbro Inc., the nation's No. 2 toy maker. The Hub is already in the crosshairs of media watchdogs who fear the network's programming, with shows based on toy lines G.I. Joe, Transformers, My Little Pony and Pound Puppies, amounts to little more than plugs for Hasbro products.

"The notion of a toy company owning a television channel for the sole purpose of promoting their toys is egregious practice," said Susan Linn, director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, which has emerged as one of the Hub's harshest critics. Linn acknowledged that she had yet to see any of the network's new shows.

Whether the network's ties to Hasbro will lead to greater scrutiny from lawmakers and regulators remains to be seen. The Federal Communications Commission limits the number of commercials aired during shows aimed at children ages 12 and younger. And during shows based on a toy or game, the FCC bars advertisements for that toy or game.

Looking to ease an outcry, the Hub plans to carry six minutes of commercials per hour in shows aimed at preschoolers, well below the FCC's limit of 12 minutes on weekdays and 10.5 minutes on weekends.

Discovery and Hasbro say it will take more than toy-inspired programming to make the new network succeed.

"There have been many shows created just to try to help move toy lines that have come and gone very quickly," Loesch said. The proportion of programs that the Hub will carry based on Hasbro toys and games is less than 20%, she said, "a very small piece of a much larger mosaic."

"Kids are not going to want to see 30-minute infomercials," added Discovery Chief Operating Officer Peter Liguori.

The activists may turn out to be just a thorn in the side of the Hub, which is spending close to $20 million to promote the new network. The real challenge will be making a dent in the already established networks directed at kids, including Viacom Inc.'s Nickelodeon and Nicktoons; Walt Disney Co.'s Disney Channel and Disney XD; Time Warner Inc.'s Cartoon Network; and Sprout, co-owned by Comcast Corp. and the Public Broadcasting Service.

And in 2012, Disney is launching Disney Jr., a network targeting the preschool market.

The Hub needs "to find a way to get the kids to know that their programming is out there," said Darcy Bowe, an associate director at advertising giant Starcom, whose clients include Kellogg Co. and Nintendo Co.

In Hasbro's and Discovery's sights are the 41.6 million U.S. children ages 2 to 11, by Nielsen's count, and the more than $1 billion spent by advertisers trying to reach them. The Hub, which is taking over a channel currently occupied by the low-rated Discovery Kids network, will launch in 60 million homes; its competitors are in about 100 million.

"This is definitely going to take a while," Liguori said.

The Hub's original-series lineup is heavy with Hasbro tie-ins such as "Family Game Night," an hourlong show in which contestants play giant-size versions of the company's familiar games including Cranium, Twister and Yahtzee. But it also includes a half-hour live-action program — "R.L. Stine's the Haunting Hour: The Series," developed in conjunction with the author of children's horror stories — and other original and acquired fare that does not have ties to Hasbro.

Still, neither partner is backing off the idea that one of the objectives of the Hub is to move Hasbro's products. Nonetheless, such TV-toy tie-ins are as old as the marionettes, board games and wristwatches that sold because of the popularity of NBC's "The Howdy Doody Show," whose run began in the late 1940s.

"The fact is, there's a lot of branded entertainment out there that creates tremendous merchandising across the industry," Hasbro Chief Executive Brian Goldner said. "That predates anything that Hasbro has done."

Indeed, Goldner said, generations-old toys can serve as authentic source material for entertainment. Consider the commercial success of the films " G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra" and "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen."

"The sole reason for going into this joint venture on this network is to create a successful network with high ratings, based on great characters. Period, full stop," Goldner said. "Otherwise the audience will vote with their clickers and their eyeballs, and they'll go some other place."

Loesch said the Hub's connection with Hasbro is engendering misperceptions.

"I know that it seems to be this hot button that one of the partners owning this company is Hasbro," she said. "But the other partner is Discovery, and we have programming from them and are using their DNA."

For parents, the hubbub around the Hub presents a conflict. On one hand, it is one more option for children to watch. On the other, it means more programming inextricably bound up with kids' products.

Robin Sexton, a mother of three and an officer of the Canyon View Elementary School PTA in Irvine, said she feels her daughters already are inundated with commercial messages on TV and in stores without the two being in cahoots.

"I feel there is enough exposure as it is," Sexton said. "So to base an entire network on that, I find that a little disconcerting.… The second a child sees the show, they can say, 'I want to buy that.' "

That's exactly what Hasbro is hoping.


 

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