PRE-SCHOOL MONTH: Gender and licensing

Baby Jake creator on how a gender neutral brand can have universal appeal.
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Darrall Macqueen was founded in 2000 by myself and business partner Maddy Darrall as a kids-focused production outfit.

We’d just spent five years at Disney UK where we had creative responsibility for children’s live weekend ‘magazine’ shows across Europe and Africa. Our live action shows (Disney Club, Diggit) were the sort of shows that included Disney animations as part of a two-hour slot. I found myself involved in fascinating meetings approving European money for new animation series like Recess (produced by Disney’s animation studios in LA). At the time, I didn’t realise how valuable this animation learning would prove ten years later.

When we established Darrall Macqueen, we naturally built the company on our experience of live weekend shows. In 2001, we were commissioned to produce CBBC’s Smile, which would go on to run for five series and launch presenters Reggie Yates and Fearne Cotton as household names in the UK.

Animation was a key part of this show too, with Scooby Doo and Arthur its key staples. In 2005, Smile transformed into spin-off sitcom Bear Behaving Badly with its puppet character Nev the Bear. And, when Australian TV group Southern Star bought three-quarters of Darrall Macqueen, I experienced my first taste of trying to secure interest in Bear Behaving Badly from international distributors and licensees.

Perhaps in hindsight, Bear Behaving Badly was all about learning for me. By 2009 it hadn’t sold in any territories, despite being a hit show in the UK. And no TV sales meant no licensee offers. It was around this time when we bought the company back and I realised that sitcoms were too expensive to dub and therefore weren’t easy sells in the international TV market.

As UK children’s television budgets were stripped to the bone we had to make only those shows that were worth investment (international investment and investment of our own time) and that meant making content with global distribution and licensing appeal. I was returning to my business roots at Disney – and I was returning to animation.

Our first animation series, 52 x 11-minute Pet Squad, currently showing weekdays at 15.45 on CBBC, was aimed at six to 11 year olds. Sony Pictures Television International distributes the series and so far TV sales look positive, although licensing is less clear cut as the show has no clear gender specification.

I have learnt that the older children’s marketplace can be a tricky challenge when it comes to winning the hearts and minds of licensees. Toy companies want to know whether a product fits into its boys or girls range, whereas most TV channels want to know your show is gender neutral. There’s the rub. Not so in pre-school, where we have focused our attentions with our hybrid animation series Baby Jake (weekdays at 10.15 and 2.15 on CBeebies).

Although pre-school is a highly competitive market in terms of both programming and licensing, the right property can deliver gender-neutrality for CBeebies while also offering licensees products with universal appeal.

Pre-school products aren’t always divided into ‘girls’ and ‘boys’ as product ranges aimed at older children are, and can be cleverly steered to offer something to all – think the development of George the Pig as the ‘boy’ range of the Peppa Pig franchise. Baby Jake – the adventures of a baby called Jake whose babbling is translated by his six-year-old brother Isaac – has cute appeal for all under-fives. But, crucially, it also appeals to TV distributors (Baby Jake is visually unique and easy to dub) and has already secured a distribution agreement with BBC Worldwide – just the sort of positive news that will reassure potential licensees.

Vivid has the UK toy licence and we are excited about the range of products being developed for market in 2012. We hope this enthusiasm will transfer to other buyers in publishing and apparel. Baby Jake has four animated friends – Pengy Quin, Nibbles the Rabbit, the Hamsternauts and Sydney the Monkey - with whom he shares adventures in four different environments (snow, countryside, space and tropical).

We focused on these four popular animals based on research about popular pets that we remembered from our Disney days. We gave them physical attributes to compliment Baby Jake; they are all baby animals and none of them is proportionately larger than Baby Jake. None of them speak words but use appealing animal sounds to convey meaning much as Baby Jake uses his own gurgling baby language. We hope this gives plenty of potential for licensees across the globe.

Bear Behaving Badly was a big learning curve for us as a company, with Pet Squad then moving our experience of licensing for the UK and International market to another level. The knowledge gained was used to help shape Baby Jake, which is already proving a hit with licensing companies.

It’s a case of staying true to your creative instincts and true to your young audience and then sprinkling on top any key additions that will help support a licensing programme. Difficult to get all three right, but when you do, the result is very powerful for all partners - creators, broadcasters and licensors alike.

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