NEW YORK — As a television show, "The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers" is still a big hit with kids. But as a set of action-figure toys, the colorful crusaders are fading, showing that tie-ins with top-rated programs do not guarantee equivalent retail success.
Cerritos-based Bandai America Inc., seeking to reignite sales of the product line it manufactures under license, is scrambling to update the Rangers. Meanwhile, the producers of the TV show are making major changes to stimulate interest.
"Toys are like the fashion business," said Trish Stewart, associate vice president of Bandai. "Kids want something new and fresh, and the changes in the TV show allow us to meet that challenge."
Bandai's effort to revive the Power Rangers' popularity--unveiled this week at the 93rd annual American Toy Fair here--illustrates the challenges that merchandisers face in maintaining sales of characters whose attractiveness can fade quickly as new stars emerge.
Tie-ins with television shows and movies have become a huge part of the toy business. Nearly half the $15.6-billion worth of toys (including video games) sold in the United States in 1994 came from licensed products, according to the Toy Manufacturers of America and the New York-based Licensing Letter trade publication.
Others enjoying such tie-in arrangements include La Mirada-based Playmates Toys Inc., which manufactures the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and "Star Trek" figures.
Bandai, a subsidiary of a Japanese company, obtained the licensing rights to make the Ranger look-alikes from Los Angeles-based Saban Entertainment Inc. Saban, which produces the program for the Fox television network, is making major changes in the show that must be reflected in the toy line. Saban had the right to accept or reject the changes suggested by Bandai.
Executives of Bandai, which does not release its sales figures, say the toy's new look provides new marketing opportunities for the Power Rangers, which continued to be the most popular toy in the action-figure category last year even though sales, according to analysts, plunged as much as 35% from 1994 levels, when interest in the live-action TV show created a Morphin mania that helped make the Rangers No. 1 in the toy world.
For those entering its showrooms at this week's toy fair, Bandai provided the following suggestion: "Forget everything you know about the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers."
Bandai can justify that prospect. First of all, the company is dropping "Mighty Morphin" from the toys' name because the five featured characters will no longer use the power "morpher" to transform themselves into helmeted superheroes.
Instead, energy from a "zeo" crystal will do the trick. Hence the new name: "Power Rangers Zeo."
Bandai is adding smaller and, at $6.75 each, more affordable figures to complement the larger $11 Rangers, which will come equipped with sound features such as buzzing swords.
Responding to a recent shift in the TV show's story line, Bandai will introduce the villain Master Vile. And to match impending changes in the show, it will introduce a gold Ranger to lead the existing red, pink, yellow, white and blue models.
Major changes in the show are scheduled for April and the fall. Bandai will ship the new products to stores during those periods.
Part of the sales drop was due to declining sales to girls, according to the company.
Girls had been attracted to the two female characters in the TV show but lost some interest in the toys in 1995.
Bandai hopes to attract girls with its new Sailor Moon action figures, toys based on an animated television series featuring schoolgirls who derive superpowers from planets in the solar system. Under a separate deal with another TV production company, Bandai began to sell the Sailor Moon characters last year and will add new accessories this fall.
The company also plans to introduce toys based on the "Big Bad Beetleborgs" when that live-action TV program debuts this fall. The figures are based on three children who are transformed into superheroes after entering a haunted house.
The company is also banking on the "WMAC Masters," a live-action series that another production company launched last year. The stars of the show--combatants with names such as Tsunami, Red Dragon and Star Warrior--are real martial arts champions who compete in televised events. This spring and fall, Bandai will release action figures and martial arts accessories that can be changed into other weapons.
The success of these new toys is linked inextricably to the ratings performance of the TV programs, said Jill Krutick, a toy industry analyst at Smith Barney in New York.
But "even if a show is a success, the toy must be attractive and it must have a strong advertising budget to succeed in the marketplace," she said.
Krutick said Bandai will face stiff competition from Rhode Island-based Hasbro Inc., which is issuing a new action-figure version of Superman. Hasbro also produces the strong-selling Batman figures.
"There's so much competition in the action-figure category," Krutick said. "Bandai's Power Rangers might not reach the 1995 sales level."
Citing plans for a massive marketing campaign for the Rangers, Bandai's Stewart predicts the toys will exceed that level.
"Reports of the death of the Rangers were greatly exaggerated," she said.