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Screen Gems

'Simpsons' cheese? 'ER' goggles? It's all part of the lucrative world of TV merchandising. But forget what you've learned about movie tie-ins. The TV people are a lot more focused.

July 14, 1996|Chuck Crisafulli | Chuck Crisafulli is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Love the show? Watch it every week? Well, why not make it a part of every day--by buying the tie-in plush toy, the comic book, the board game, the interactive software, the drink mix, the collectible plate and . . . the cheese.

Welcome to the world of TV merchandising, where the success of a program is measured not in ratings points but in trifles and trinkets, apparel and gadgets.

It's no secret that children's programming has often encouraged its young viewers to head directly to toy stores. Parents who have tried vainly to keep Power Rangers out of the house can appreciate the formidable influence of a TV-to-toy connection. A decade ago, merchandising was still chiefly the domain of Saturday morning kids' shows, with adult programming generating mainly promotional T-shirts and coffee mugs.

But the licensing of logos, character likenesses, catch phrases and concepts from films and TV programs has become big business--a business that generated $17 billion in sales in North America last year, according to the Licensing Letter, a trade newsletter covering the licensed merchandise industry.

Film- and TV-related products compete on the same retail shelves but are the results of very different strategies. A film's merchandising campaign can be planned a year or two before release and typically makes itself known in an all-out barrage of products tied to the opening of a movie--witness the multitude of cuddly hunchbacks suddenly available at toy stores and fast-food counters.

TV merchandising can't be quite as calculated; no one knows what each season's hits are going to be or whether a show will find an audience interested in any related merchandise. The owners of TV programs--typically studios rather than networks in the case of prime-time shows--must take a somewhat subtler approach than filmmakers do.

TV products are niche-marketed--specifically tailored to the perceived tastes of a show's audience--and gradually made available as a show becomes more popular. The success of that approach has moved TV-inspired products far beyond T-shirts and has made the licensing of prime-time programs one of the hottest trends in the merchandising industry.

And so while kids are still converting Saturday morning TV time into dollars spent at Toys R Us, avid adult TV fans can now also express their devotion to a program of choice by buying show-related products for almost every conceivable use and occasion--from "Star Trek" birthday cards to "Cheers" cocktail paraphernalia, from "X-Files" trading cards to "ER" safety goggles. And--only in Australia, unfortunately--Homer wannabes can up the calorie count of their sandwiches with slices of "Simpsons" brand cheese.

The toy market is still sizable, with $20 billion in toy sales in 1995; nearly half of all toys sold in 1995 were licensed products. But categories of licensed products appealing to adults take in much more money--licensed stationery and paper goods alone took in more than $2 billion last year, while licensed apparel racked up more than $4 billion. And the fact that a single film like "Jurassic Park" can pull in $1 billion in retail sales of related merchandise has impressed the TV world enough to make prime-time merchandising a priority.

"When I got into this five years ago, there was very little prime-time merchandise," says Nancy Allen, president of Marquee Images, a New York-based company that oversees the licensing and merchandising of such programs as "Seinfeld," "Homicide," "The Single Guy" and "The Tonight Show."

"But it's an evolving market. Adults are fans of shows just like kids are. People do stand around the water cooler and talk about the things that happened the night before on shows. If we can capture that on some kind of product, it allows the show to live a little longer than just once a week. But with shows like these, we're not looking for the next Mutant Ninja Turtles. The process has to be handled differently--it has to be a little more sophisticated."

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That sophistication turns up in attempts to match the "tone" of a product with the tone of a particular show and in attempts to make sure that the products offered are ones that will be appreciated by a particular show's audience. The comedic or dramatic tone of a show is also a large consideration in just how much merchandise to make available--some of TV's hottest shows do not turn into the kind of merchandising cash cows one might expect, because their content does not make them easily merchandisable.

As vice president of property development at Warner Bros., Michael Peikoff has had the opportunity to merchandise a pair of hot NBC hits--"Friends" and "ER"--and has taken very different strategies with each.

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