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Putt-Putt to Shift Gears Into Television, Movies

Software: Educational CD-ROM firm Humongous, in deal with Lancit, is among first to move its characters to new mediums.

March 26, 1997|JENNIFER OLDHAM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Putt-Putt the talking purple roadster, one of the most popular characters in children's educational software, will soon debut on TV and movie screens nationwide, according to a deal to be announced today.

Under the agreement, Woodinville, Wash.-based Humongous Entertainment will develop and produce TV shows, movies and home videos with New York-based Lancit Media Entertainment, a producer of children's programming. The productions will star Humongous' popular CD-ROM characters such as Putt-Putt, Freddi Fish and Pajama Sam.

Humongous has garnered more than 92 awards for its 14 titles, including "Pajama Sam in There's No Need to Hide When It's Dark Outside" and "Freddi Fish and the Case of the Missing Kelp Seeds." They are designed to teach children ages 3 to 8 problem-solving skills and teamwork through interactive journeys they control by pointing and clicking a mouse.

The company, a subsidiary of GT Interactive, is one of a few educational software firms that has successfully created CD-ROM characters with staying power among kids, analysts said. Humongous is among the first of these firms to take the characters and move them into other mediums.

"Kids actually hug and kiss the computer screen when they play with these characters," said Noel Resnick, Lancit's senior vice president of program development. "This is the first time millions of kids have created strong bonds with a family of characters before they debut on TV, video or the big screen."

Broderbund Software followed a similar path when it decided to allow its popular Carmen Sandiego software line to be made into three successful TV shows. The move has created a heightened awareness of the company's products and increased sales, analysts said.

Analysts agree Humongous' deal will help the firm remain viable in the crowded children's educational software market, where more than 650 competitors jostled for name recognition last year. The overall home education software segment brought in more than $568 million in sales for the first nine months of 1996, according to the Software Publishers Assn.

"This is a way to extend the lives of these characters," said Andrea Williams, an analyst at Volpe, Brown, Whelan & Co. in San Francisco. "A lot more kids watch TV and cartoons than play computer games, and when they see a Humongous TV show and like it, they will put pressure on their parents to buy the CD-ROM."

Humongous has sold 3 million units worldwide since it was founded in 1992, and it saw a 54% jump in sales in 1996, from about $10 million to $15 million.

Humongous and Lancit, creator of the Emmy Award-winning series "Reading Rainbow" and PBS' "The Puzzle Place," will share profits from programming sales and merchandising-related royalties, according to the deal.

The partners plan to create a TV show patterned on Warner Bros.' hourlong Looney Tunes shows, which feature a series of short segments starring different characters. They hope the show will debut in the fall of 1998.

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Humongous has also inked a deal with Strategy Licensing, a subsidiary of Lancit, to follow the characters' TV debut with the release of books, clothing, stuffed animals and puzzles featuring Humongous characters.

Company executives say they plan to make the transition from CD-ROM to TV and other products slowly so kids--and parents--won't become burned out on their characters.

"We know our characters are extremely endearing because of the millions of kids that have purchased Putt-Putt," said Ralph Giuffre, executive vice president of marketing and licensing at Humongous.

"This marriage is perfect because Lancit shares our vision of the kind of quality programming we want," he said. "We want to go slow and be careful; we're not out to create the next rage in toys, we're out to create a family brand."

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