THE BIG INTERVIEW: Peter Byrne

Licensing.biz Executive Advisory Board member, Peter Byrne talks about Hit's success in the pre-school sector, the importance of looking outside the traditional licensing areas to expand your brands and what's coming up from the firm next...
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Firstly, how have the last 12 months been for Hit Entertainment in general?

Overall, the focus for the past 12 months has been on expanding our presence globally on all levels of the business – broadcast, consumer products, live events and attractions and production and programming. We have accomplished so much over the past year including the launch of a new global preschool channel JimJam, a joint venture between HIT, Chellozone and Liberty Global which now reaches seven million households. This exceeded our own expectations in just over six months. Thomas Land in the UK opened earlier this year and is on track to achieve a million visitors a year. We also created an exciting new entertainment club concept, The Little Big Club, which is set to open in Dubai in 2009.

If we can take the main properties in turn, starting with Angelina Ballerina: what have been the main developments with the brand over the past few months, how many licensees does it now have, can you name some of the key partners, what are the most successful products and what's coming up next?

Angelina Ballerina: The Next Steps, a brand new series in CGI, is currently in production which will launch worldwide in 2010. It positions Angelina much broader than just ballet with a new cast of characters, an expanded range of dance and new destinations and appeal to a broader age range. It’s a complete re-launch of the brand and we are just starting to present the new animations to partners now. We see it as a global opportunity to own the dance category for which we are seeking a master toy partner and will be adding other categories as we prepare for the launch. Publishing in the UK is handled by Penguin.

Then could you answer the same questions for Barney & Friends, Bob the Builder, Fireman Sam, Pingu and Thomas & Friends.

Barney & Friends: Barney celebrated his 20th anniversary this year with the release of Dinomite Birthday – a brand new DVD special, a new anniversary logo and style guide and a new broadcast home on Cartoonito. This year Barney also toured the UK in a new live show.
Bob the Builder: Bob celebrates his 10th anniversary next year and will make his CGI debut in brand new series. This year, Bob releases Race To The Finish on DVD and continues to be one of the UK’s fastest growing properties.
Thomas & Friends: It was another big year for Thomas & Friends as preparations begin for the popular character’s 65th Anniversary. For the first time Thomas & Friends will move to CGI animation and High Definition in 2010 with new characters and new destinations. Thomas & Friends: The Great Discovery DVD special is released in the UK in October and marks the debut of Pierce Brosnan as the guest voice of the Narrator. This will also launch theatrically in 40 Vue Cinemas across the UK as part of a broader, strategic partnership. TOMY also released its new range of Thomas Trackmaster product, unveiled earlier this year.
Fireman Sam: With a new broadcast home on Five’s Milkshake and Cartoonito and a new programming format in CGI animation, it is shaping up to be an exciting year for Fireman Sam. The new series in CGI introduces new characters and expands Fireman Sam’s home town of Pontypandy to feature coastline rescues, boats and new locations which will offer more toy opportunities to our licensees.

You also represent the Chapman properties in the US - is this correct? Could you tell us a bit more about that?

We are thrilled to be representing Chapman Entertainment’s properties Roary the Racing Car and Fifi and the Flowertots in the US and Canada and have already secured a broadcast home for Fifi and the Flowertots on PBS Sprout in the US and Treehouse in Canada with a complete licensing programme now in development to support the broadcast platforms.

With such classic properties as Thomas and Bob, the challenge must be to keep them fresh and relevant to the pre-school audience. How do you do this?

The beauty of Thomas and Bob is that they are timeless, classic and evergreen properties and appeal to generation after generation of children. But you cannot simply stand still in this business. We will be really expanding our levels of integrated marketing activity throughout Bob’s 10th anniversary in 2009 and Thomas’ 65th anniversary in 2010. Both brands have been given a programming refresh with a new and dynamic CGI format which enables us to do far more in connecting with our audience. We have also expanded our offering of fresh new artwork in the style guides to help build some exciting new themes at retail for our licensees.

How important is it now to extend your brands outside of the traditional licensing/product areas (for example theme parks, etc) especially in such a crowded market as pre-school?

The whole area of theme parks, attractions and live events is our fastest growing segment of the business and our iconic brands are perfectly suited to the theme park environment. The classic and timeless appeal demonstrates that our characters are here to stay, not gone tomorrow. For example, at the recently opened Thomas Land in the UK, the theme park has seen a significant change in the visitor profile and Thomas has been a major factor in bringing families back into the park. Events and Attractions provide a much stronger emotional connection with the consumer and memories of these kinds of days out remain with young children for a long time afterwards. It is an important part of our business strategy and mix of activity.

How much of Hit's business comes from the pre-school sector?

Our core business is in pre-school – with some of the best brands in the business.

Would it be correct to say that Hit is the leader within the licensed pre-school sector? How are you aiming to maintain this position?

Hit’s strengths lie in our consistent performance year after year in the licensing business. Thomas has an enviable number one position in the UK, Germany, Australia and the US and is a close number two in the notoriously difficult market, Japan. Bob is also up there as a top 20 player in most major markets so I guess that is a yes.

What is your opinion of the pre-school sector in general at the moment? Do you think there are too many similar properties fighting for shelf space?

The market has become highly competitive. Everyone is searching for the ‘next Thomas’ or Bob so there is now a great deal of competition and limited shelf space. And, looking forward with a somewhat depressed economy, retailers are going to play safer in the main and support those brands that have been tried and tested. It will be harder for newcomers to enter on a big scale in the short or mid-term.

Which other pre-school properties do you admire from other firms?

I think Chapman Entertainment have done a phenomenal job with Fifi and the Flowertots and Roary the Racing Car, which is why we we’re keen to manage the representation of these two properties in the US and Canada. You also cannot ignore the break out success of In The Night Garden, which has exceptional production qualities and has really made its mark in the business.

What would your advice be to companies thinking of moving into the pre-school area?

If you are just looking to imitate what is already out in the market place then don’t. The key is to create a truly unique character that has a strong emotional resonance with kids and mums alike. Parental endorsement is important too and having an inherent play pattern that underpins the storyline also helps to expand outside the world of broadcast.

What else is in the Hit portfolio that you will be focusing on going forward?

Rainbow Magic moves from books to the big screen with a new DVD special set for release in 2010 as well as a fully immersive website.
5 Speed 5 is in development with Cocaban and we will be showcasing to broadcasters at this years MIPCOM.We are also cranking up new property development in house. We have spent the past two years rejuvenating our core properties for the next ten years – expect to see more new stuff going forward.

Where do you see the company in five years time?

In five years time, Hit will have expanded globally with a more extensive and broader portfolio of children’s properties and with a much stronger channel presence. There will probably be a few more Thomas Lands in major markets too.

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