Programming power house

New alliances create formidable troika

In an era when many kids’ entertainment companies find themselves stuck in a traffic jam of competitors, shrinking airtime and vertical integration, Saban Entertainment has managed to stay in the carpool lane, whizzing by much of the rest of the industry. In less than a decade, the company, jointly headquartered in Los Angeles and Paris, has transformed itself into a global kidvid superpower that has greatly influenced the industry at large.

Incredibly, Saban, the purveyor of such kidvid hits as “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers,” the animated “X-Men,” “Beetleborgs” and “Francine Pascal’s Sweet Valley High,” was not widely known as a producer in the U.S. until it launched “X-Men” on Fox Kids Network in January of 1993. Prior to that, Saban, named after founder, chairman and CEO Haim Saban, was known mostly as an international distributor, a status that remains, in the words of Michel Welter, president of Saban Enterprises Intl., “the source of our success.”

It was also the foundation of the company’s high-powered alliance with Fox, which began in 1995 when the company pacted to distribute all Fox Kids Network programming internationally, and culminated in September of last year with the creation of Fox Kids Worldwide, a global cable operation that is owned 50-50 by Saban and Fox’s parent, News Corp. The recent acquisition (for $1.9-billion) of Intl. Family Entertainment, which owns the Family Channel, created a hugely powerful triumvirate.

“The power of Fox Kids Worldwide comes from its strength of distribution, production and marketing to kids, and the combined synergies of its three distinct platforms — Saban Entertainment, Fox Kids Networks and the Family Channel,” states the Israel-born Saban, who also serves as chairman/CEO of Fox Kids Worldwide.

Indeed, the company’s rich plate of assets had caused Fox execs to ponder an alliance with Saban Entertainment for quite some time before it finally came together.

“I had actually been thinking about an alliance with Saban about a year before ‘Power Rangers’ came out,” explains Margaret Loesch, formerly president of Fox Kids Network and now vice chairman of Fox Kids Worldwide. “It was becoming more evident to me that we needed a partner that was both well-connected and knowledgeable in the international marketplace. While Fox was doing a good job distributing our cartoons, they weren’t exploiting them with the strategy that I felt kids’ programming needed, and they weren’t commanding as top a dollar as Saban.”

Neither does it hurt that Saban has an international library in excess of 5,000 half-hours, which will serve as the programming basis for the Fox Kids Networks worldwide. So far, branded channels have been launched in Australia, the United Kingdom and Latin America, all on cable and satellite platforms. More recently, a programming block was launched on TV10 in the Netherlands.

And these moves, according to Stan Golden, president of Saban Intl., are only the beginning. “There are plans for launching in several other major territories in Europe,” he says. “We’re just touching the surface in terms of potential penetration internationally.”

The EC factor

The importance of a company like Saban in this kind of global venture goes beyond its distribution expertise, however. Saban, which has its roots in Europe, has long operated an animation studio in Paris and has produced dozens of shows that fall easily within European Content quota regulations.

“It’s not just about an American company that produces shows for the American market and uses that source as a provider for the European market,” explains Ynon Kreiz, a former Saban exec who is now managing director of Fox Kids Europe. “We have people physically sitting in Europe producing shows for the European market.”

Saban’s co-production capacity, though, does not stop at Euro borders. “We take stories from Europe, from Asia, from Latin America, and we develop and produce them together with TV stations or partners in the international market and produce animated series that can be sold worldwide, and also in the United States,” says Welter.

“If you take other European companies that produce animated series, they have always had a difficult time selling in the U.S., and the reason is, they have different standards and rules,” Welter adds.

Indeed, much, if not most of Saban’s animated product is initiated internationally, and some of it, such as the French-produced series “Iznogoud,” will probably not be shown in the U.S. (because of those different standards, Welter implies).

Of the 11 toon series Saban currently has in production, including new Marvel Comic-related shows like the upcoming “Silver Surfer” (see accompanying story), “Princess Sissi” (based on the real-life Princess Elizabeth of Austria, and already an overseas merchandising hit), “Walter Melon,” ‘Diabolik,” “Jim Button” and “Bad Dog,” more than half are being produced in Europe, and all but the last three will be sold this year at Mipcom.

Live-action cartoons

It was a live-action series, though, that suddenly skyrocketed the company into the stratosphere, both in terms of network ratings and merchandising. “We’re probably best known as the house of live-action adventure,” admits Saban.

That’s because of “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers,” which debuted in 1993 and quickly became a bona fide phenomenon that inspired a tidal wave of licensing and merchandising, two theatrical features, and of course, a host of clones, including some from Saban, like “VR Troopers” and “Big Bad Beetleborgs.”

“(Live-action) had not been toyed with very much for many years prior to the debut of ‘Power Rangers,’ and there was clearly a need for it,” notes Golden. “There tends to be a clutter of animation for the most part, and there is certainly no clutter at all in the live-action genre.”

This year, the company is introducing three new live-action series: “The All New Captain Kangaroo” for the preschool set (see accompanying story), “Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation,” which adds, for the first time, a female turtle character to the popular franchise, and “Breaker High,” about a group of high schoolers who live and study on a cruise ship.

In addition, “Sweet Valley High” is returning for a fourth season, as are new incarnations of “Power Rangers” and “Beetleborgs,” now titled “Saban’s Power Rangers Turbo” and “Saban’s Beetleborgs Metallix.”

Indeed, the revamping of hit shows into new “editions” has become something of a Saban trademark. Aside from appealing to its audience’s simultaneous demands for newness and familiarity, it also adds considerable weight to each show’s licensing and merchandising potential.

“As we make these changes in the dramatic context of each of these programs, we are very careful to make sure that it is coordinated with our other ancillary businesses and our promotional partners,” explains Elie Dekel, senior VP of marketing and promotions.

Global licensing

The list of Saban’s promotional partners is wide indeed, particularly in the area of fast-food promotions. “There is no studio in town more active in that category than we are, across multiple different partners,” claims Dekel.

“We have already applied our shared resources with Fox Kids against that strategic tactic of kid’s meals, and other promotional partners,” Dekel adds. “It is perhaps not as centralized as, say, the Disney/McDonald’s relationship, but it is as ever-present in the marketplace as any of them.”

In addition to a recent “Beetleborg’s” promotion at McDonald’s, Saban has in the past two years also partnered with Jack in the Box, Carl’s Jr., Long John Silver’s, Subway, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Taco Bell and Denny’s.

Merchandising and licensing of toy products remains a major thrust for the company, and key to these efforts are Saban’s long-term relationships with Bandai, Toy Biz, Playmates and Trendmasters, as well as deals with European companies such as Giocchi Preziosi, Panini, Zeon, Sun City, Fiori Paolo and Deichman Schuhe.

While there appears to be precious little new territory left for the company to invade (Saban also has record and TV movie divisions, as well as extensive inhouse production capabilities), it is staking out new ground in the direct-to-video marketplace with a series of live-action sequels and prequels to theatrical films.

“We’re a company who knows how to produce quality movies on a really tight budget, and the reputation and ability to do that led some of the homevideo companies to say, ‘Yeah, we have a project, let’s give it to Saban and see if we can bring it in for the right number,’ ” explains Lance Robbins, president of motion pictures and television for Saban.

The first homevid pic out of the gate was “Casper: A Spirited Beginning,” a $10-million prequel to 1995’s “Casper,” starring Steve Gutenberg and Rodney Dangerfield, and featuring computer animated ghosts.

“Richie Rich Saves Christmas” — like “Casper,” based on another Harvey Comics staple — is slated to begin shooting in January for a Christmas, ’98 release through Warner Home Video. In the works are another Casper film, “Casper Meets Wendy” (Harvey’s “Good Little Witch”), as well as another sequel to “The Addams Family” franchise. In addition to these, the Fox Kids library is being examined for its homevid potential.

Besides an almost uncanny knack for making the right decisions and deals, what has been the secret of Saban’s rise to the top of the kidvid heap? No big secret, say company officials: just lots of hard work.

“We basically work out of the trenches and have identified opportunities over the years,” says Golden. “And based on a very small and well-defined management structure, we’ve been able to make decisions and move on them very quickly.”

But Saban himself offers a more succinct and definitive answer in typical Israeli fashion. “There’s really no secret,” he says of his company’s success. “It’s called kishka (guts).”