Tooned up for tomorrow

DIC turns 25 as topper Heyward takes company into tween territory

It’s midafternoon at DIC Entertainment’s Burbank headquarters, and company chairman-CEO Andy Heyward is having a typical day. He’s frantically eating a sandwich (a late lunch) along with some nuts and raisins and drinking a caffeine-free Diet Coke. Meantime, he’s fielding questions from his publicist, chief creative officer and assistant — who are all in his office at the same time.

Heyward’s juggling act is nothing new to those who have worked with him at DIC for the last quarter century.

“He goes 24/7,” says Michael Maliani, DIC’s creative topper. “I get calls at midnight and 1 a.m., and all I hear for the first few minutes is the tapping of fingers on a computer keyboard.”

Heyward apparently has a habit of emailing co-workers and calling them at the same time at all hours of the night, as ideas hit him.

His penchant for manic multitasking pervades all aspects of his life. Heyward, who is an avid linguist (he speaks French, Spanish, Japanese and German and is learning Mandarin), listens to language tapes while he drives.

While he doesn’t consider himself a musician, Heyward plays guitar and piano, often dabbling with tunes for DIC cartoons and other projects. So, naturally, his electric guitar and a keyboard stand right beside his desk at the office.

Heyward’s ability to deftly juggle so many tasks is perhaps one of the main reasons why DIC, a relative welterweight in the children’s television business, has not only survived but prospered.

DIC has created some of the most memorable and profitable cartoon characters for young kids, such as Strawberry Shortcake and Inspector Gadget. Its recent move to target the tweens market — kids 9 to 12 — is a major shift that’s sure to be the subject of many more middle-of-the-night calls.

DIC’s flagship project in this new endeavor is called Slumber Party Girls.

Geffen Records and DIC partnered to create a multitalented, multiethnic group as the cornerstone of the SPG brand. The five girls, who sing, dance and act, serve as hosts on new kids programming block “KOL Secret Slumber Party” on CBS. The programming block launched Sept. 16 and is a collaboration of DIC, AOL’s KOL kids site and CBS.

“I basically shot from the hip and said to Andy that we ought to develop a girl group that’s kind of like the Power Rangers meets the Monkees meets the Spice Girls,” says Ron Fair, chairman of Geffen Records and president of A&M/Interscope Records.

Slumber Party Girls also will be the house band for a dance competition show “Dance Revolution.”

Fair says SPG fills a noticeable gap in the children’s music market.

“From a music standpoint, this is a gigantic underserved segment of the population,” says Fair, who discovered Christina Aguilera. “A lot of the kids music that’s produced for this age group is in the voice of Barney. We set out to put out music that sounded contemporary and competitive with Beyonce, Destiny’s Child, Nelly Furtado and the Black Eyed Peas of the world, but that lyrically was age-appropriate.”

Heyward, who has run DIC since its inception, says aiming new shows to the tween market is key to the company’s continued growth.

“Advertiser demand and the audience is there,” Heyward says.

He and his team know, however, that getting and holding the tween market will be challenging.

“They’re moving strongly into the tween market, which is an extremely difficult market,” says Mike Bundlie, CEO and creative director of Poet’s Road, who has been involved in developing DIC shows such as “Liberty’s Kids” and “Super Duper Sumos,” and in overseeing production of Web sites including Trollz.com and the upcoming DanceRevolutionTV.com.

But the segment for tween is undoubtedly attractive: Girls are among the biggest spenders in this market, which is estimated to be worth $20 billion.

“They really control a lot of spending,” Maliani says. “They’re the ones buying these iPods and the $300 or $400 jeans.”

Heyward and Fair expect SPG to be the next big thing for the pre-high school set. SPG will host TV shows and a block of CBS Saturday morning programming, make records and spearhead an Internet presence. There also are plans for a concert tour, Fair says.

DIC will work with partners to develop products across key categories such as apparel, accessories, electronics, publishing and cosmetics.

While the focus right now is on girls, an upcoming project is geared toward boys as well. Though still in the very early planning stages, Heyward says he and Fair are working on a show called the Gonnabes, a sitcom about a group of teens running a record company.

DIC also is working with Promise Media on value-based projects aimed at tweens and teens. Heyward says Promise Media CEO Tony Thomopoulos wanted to create product for the Christian and faith-based marketplace.

“There’s no religion in them at all; it’s really about values,” Heyward says. “One of the first projects we’re doing is based on the movie ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’ (The projects are about) triumph of the spirit-type stories, things that families can watch together that have some value to it.”

The challenge for DIC’s ventures into the tween and teen market will be creating content that pleases the savvy and fickle demographic.

“You can’t write young, because they will not watch down; they’ll watch up,” Maliani says. “But you have to be careful that you don’t get so edgy, because we have a responsibility with our programming.”

Heyward, who considers himself first and foremost a writer, says fresh ideas are key to creating brand longevity.

“If you have a property that’s a good one, chances are you have to keep infusing new creativity and new themes in it at least twice a year,” he says.

No doubt Heyward draws inspiration for his projects from the many relationships he’s fostered through the years. He has worked with the likes of Warren Buffett, Ted Turner, Haim Saban, Walter Cronkite and Oprah Winfrey.

It’s no surprise that Heyward’s list of business relationships reads like a who’s-who of the industry. Heyward says he likes to have an open mind, because you never know where the next great idea is going to come from.

“I’m the easiest person in the world to meet with,” he says. “There’s nobody that can’t get in the door.”

That is, if you don’t mind sharing the room with a few other people.

Variety asked Andy Heyward about his favorite DIC characters:

INSPECTOR GADGET: An animated TV series about a detective who is a cyborg with various gadgets built into his anatomy. “This is the first character that I co-created, and it has become the company’s flagship character,” Heyward says. It was DIC’s first syndicated show and ran from 1983 to 1986 in syndication. The series was later adapted into a movie of the same name.

STRAWBERRY SHORTCAKE: American Greetings launched Strawberry Shortcake in 1979 as a series of greeting cards. Almost 20 years later, the brand was reintroduced in the U.S. “This property launched DIC into a global brand management company,” Heyward says. “We turned a corner with Strawberry Shortcake.”

“OUR FRIEND, MARTIN”: Four kids travel into the past to meet a young Martin Luther King Jr. “I am extremely proud of this project and everyone who participated in the production, from Oprah (Winfrey) to Whoopi Goldberg,” Heyward says. “This is simply a great story about an extraordinary person in our history.”

SUPER MARIO BROS.: Based on the groundbreaking 1985 Nintendo videogame. “(It) is the most successful videogame of all time!” Heyward says.

SONIC THE HEDGEHOG: This series is based on Sega’s very successful character. It follows the adventures of Sonic and comrade Tails as they try to stop the evil Dr. Ivo Robotnik. “This was the first series ever put on both Saturday morning network and Monday-through-Friday syndication at the same time,” Heyward says.

MADELINE: Series is based on the Ludwig Bemelmans books. “This is one of the great girls’ classics,” Heyward says. “The character has been published for 70 years.”

“LIBERTY’S KIDS”: Animated TV series teaches children about the history of the U.S. “The characters from ‘Liberty’s Kids’ are important to me,” Heyward says. “Through their eyes we saw the story of the American Revolution. So we would learn through them about freedom of the press, freedom of speech, human rights, democracy vs. totalitarianism.”