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Gotham Goes To Kids

Green slime oozing from plush hotel walls and weapon-toting 8-foot-tall creatures accosting pedestrians on Fifth Avenue would seem to signal a strange, hostile invasion. But last week it just meant that the annual two-headed circus of kids TV programmers and the American Intl. Toy Fair had landed simultaneously in Gotham.

It was kids-stuff week in New York, as kidvid veterans from network and cable TV unleashed previews of new fare for the 1995-96 season, while the monster-sized Toy Fair threw open its license-seeking doors, pulling in hundreds of TV and film entrepreneurs to display and find new merchandising hooks.

Many of the major kids programmers used the week to gather their sponsors at lavish “upfront” presentations to let loose their fall skeds and trumpet their successes from ’94. For industry leaders like Fox Children’s Network and Nickelodeon, the presentations came several weeks earlier than usual, with one eye on the thousands of toy retailers in town and the other on the ready-to-spend advertising community.

Media buyers, amid predictions of flat sales for children’s shows compared to last year, were generally encouraged by their books at week’s end. Ad sales in ’94 from kids programming on the nets, cable outlets and syndication topped $600 million; with most of the upfront ’95 buying complete as of Feb. 17, several prognosticators spoke confidently of a $700 million year.

Fox, the leader of the ratings pack almost from the launch of its Fox Children’s Network in 1990, has sold in excess of $200 million in ad time for the new season, up more than $30 million from last year, according to sources. Nickelodeon, the kids cable front-runner, probably topped the $130 million mark in sales through last week, though one buyer dismissed Nick’s claims that the figure could move above $160 million.

CBS and ABC, with their Saturday-only lineups, were predicted to have topped out at $50 million to $60 million in upfront sales. The WB Network’s new kids service, Kids’ WB, with an eight-hour package (weekdays and Saturdays) of programming to pitch, is thought to have sold about $20 million of time in recent weeks. The United Paramount Network, launching its kids biz with an hour of Sunday morning programming, has sold anywhere from $4 million to $12 million in upfront time, depending on who’s asked.

“The kids market has been very strong the past four to five years,” said Bill Croasdale, president of ad buyer Western Intl. Media. “Obviously it’s no longer just cereal and toys out there. There’s a much broader spectrum of categories for advertisers in the kids marketplace.”

“The market is definitely solid,” added John Popkowski, senior VP of ad sales at MTV Networks, Nickelodeon’s sales arm. “And there’s definitely more money out there now.”

Fox, whose yearlong ratings towered over its weekday and weekend competitors, is prepping a 19-hour slate (Monday through Friday, mornings and afternoons, and Saturday mornings) that seems poised to siphon big viewer numbers from feature film releases this summer.

“Mighty Morphin Power Rangers,” an industry unto itself, is on Fox’s weekday and Saturday fall schedule, and 20th Century Fox will premiere the “Rangers” live-actioner in early summer. (The “Rangers” have attracted close to 100 licensee tie-ins, and counting.)

The animated “Adventures of Batman and Robin” moves from Saturdays to a five-day-a-week strip and benefits from the third “Batman” film installment, “Batman Forever,” which flies out from Warner Bros, in June.

“Casper,” based on the old “Casper the Friendly Ghost” comic book and series, will find a place later on the Fox fall schedule, no doubt helped by the live-action Amblin/Universal film release in the summer.

ABC and CBS are taking a similar but seemingly safer route with their biggest new kids programs. ABC has bought 13 episodes of an animated version of the Jim Carrey starrer “Dumb and Dumber,” produced by New Line TV in association with Turner Broadcasting and Hanna-Barbera.

CBS, which narrowly trails ABC, will try 15 animated episodes of the Carrey hit vehicle “The Mask,” another New Line TV production (with Sunbow Prods, and Film Roman), as well as “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” – a Nelvana/Morgan Creek Prods, collaboration that, completing the comic’s remarkable movie-to-Saturday-morning hat trick, will arrive next January. The web will also offer “The Lion King’s Timon & Pumbaa,” which, following the route of other past Disney children’s series, will also air premiere in syndication as part of “The Disney Afternoon.”

With the Carrey films having each grossed more than $100 million, the new ABC and CBS series offer an interesting contrast to the Fox film-related kids entries. While ABC and CBS bet on established hits, Fox is gambling that its new products will benefit big from box-office bonanzas reaped from their unreleased bigscreen brethren.

“Our position is that we believe in franchises,” said New Line TV president Bob Friedman, who’s in a potentially extraordinary position as the supplier of two Jim Carrey-fueled animated series on two networks this fall (at a production pricetag of around $350,000 per episode). “Our philosophy in a crowded marketplace, for both filmed entertainment and toys on the shelf, is that it’s very difficult to cut through the clutter unless you have something with a real identity.”

Friedman was another face in the record crowd at the 92nd annual Toy Fair, which attracted 1,640 exhibitors and more than 20,000 retailers to two sprawling Gotham locations Feb. 13-20. It remains the signature event for the $18.7 billion U.S. toy industry, and as always the TV tie-ins are legion.

Deals, deals everywhere

Roaming the fair’s frenetic halls, it’s difficult to find an exhibit area where kids TV series licensing deals aren’t already done, or at least in discussion.

New Line TV, for instance, is shacked up with toy giant Kenner, holder of the “master license” on “The Mask,” which has resulted in more than 70 merchandising licenses, for everything from posters to window suction cups. Merchandising tie-ins for the “Dumb and Dumber” series should be ready in time for next Christmas.

And it’s always possible at Toy Fair to stumble on a company like Lewis Galoob Toys Inc., a moderate-sized firm that’s heavily invested in the toys-to-TV market. It has half a dozen new toy lines on display that have either spun off from kids programs (the traditional merchandising route) or will generate kids shows themselves (the untraditional route).

Chicken or egg?

“Happy Ness, the Secret of the Loch” is a line of collectible toy figurines and other products that will be unveiled to consumers just before a half-hour animated series goes out in syndication next fall. Galoob, Abrams/Gentile Entertainment and animators C&D are the creators.

Likewise, “Skydancers,” the first “flying dolls,” will be on toy shelves in September from Galoob, probably in time for an animated series based on their “adventures.”

“Mutant League,” one of the firm’s boys action-figure lines, debuted as a weekly syndication series last fall and goes to a five-a-week strip next fall. The company also has pieces of the licensing action for all of the “Star Trek” properties, the “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” and Fox’s “The Tick,” as well as “Star Wars,” “Alien” and the James Bond series.

“We make our deals,” said Galoob marketing VP Scott M. Masline, “based on faith and belief.”

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