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Entertainment Still Star of Snowy Toy Fair

16 Feb, 2006 By: Anne Sherber

Holly Hobbie is making a comeback.

NEW YORK — This wasn't an easy year for Toy Fair or for the toy industry. Although it has been the largest trade show in North America, uncertainty about the show's future and the largest blizzard on record in New York City conspired to keep attendance at the 103rd American International Toy Fair low. An October toy show exclusively for mass merchants, also produced by the Toy Industry Association (TIA), has reduced traffic at the February fair.

But there is good news for the home entertainment business.

Entertainment-based licenses continue to enjoy strong growth and fuel increased interest in home video.

“The power of entertainment in driving sales can be seen through the incredible success of franchises such as ‘Star Wars' and ‘Dora the Explorer,’ said Anita Frazier, entertainment industry analyst for The NPD Group. In fact, Nickelodeon's “Dora” received Property of the Year honors from TIA.

A new example of the symbiotic relationship that now exists between toy properties and entertainment franchises is “Holly Hobbie,” the first non-network based property to be represented by Nickelodeon and Viacom Consumer Products. Launched in 1967 as a doll meant to compete with Raggedy Ann, it was the No. 1 licensed character in the world by 1980, according to Nickelodeon. The new toy line will become available in fall 2006. The DVD, Holly Hobbie & Friends: Surprise Party, streets March 7.

Another property that is being revived after many years of dormancy is “Teddy Ruxpin.” First National Pictures, a new division of closeout distributor DVA, has acquired the rights to the 65 episodes of the cartoon series, released originally on VHS in the 1980s.

“Our experience with excess inventory told us that retailers are interested in kid's product,” said Ryan Kugler, president of both First National Pictures and DVA. “So when we heard that the license to ‘Teddy Ruxpin' was available, we decided to acquire the video rights.”

Kugler said that First National only holds the property's video license. The company is working closely with the toy license holder to coordinate marketing efforts. The first titles street Feb. 21. There will be a second release in July, and the company will release a boxed set in time for the fourth quarter.

Both retailers and potential licensing partners are looking to extend the marketing lives of known brands rather than gamble on new properties, said Leslye Schaefer, SVP of marketing and consumer products for Scholastic Media. At Toy Fair, Scholastic promoted “Clifford the Big Red Dog,” “I Spy” and “Maya & Miguel.”

“As retail has become so consolidated, it is more important than ever to be able to offer partners recognizable properties,” Schaefer said.

The specter of changing technology loomed on the show floor and in the showrooms. Joe Lyons, director of home entertainment at 4Kids Entertainment noted that even though children are usually not the earliest adaptors of new technology, 4Kids is being proactive in its approach to new delivery methods.

“We're looking into iPod TV, looking into Google Video, investigating on-demand opportunities,” he said.

He noted that there are free downloads of episodes of 4Kids' most popular properties on the 4Kids Web site. He doesn't think that the availability of what he characterizes as “older episodes” cannibalizes sales of packaged media.

4Kids announced that it will extend its popular “Yu-Gi-Oh!” brand with “Yu-Gi-Oh! GX.” Episodes of the new series already have started airing on the Cartoon Network. Although no video plans have been announced, Warner Home Video holds video rights to the first series and to the movie.

Another company that is hedging its technology bets is Screenlife, the producer of “Scene It,” the popular DVD-based series of trivia games. The company has an entire department dedicated to monitoring changes in entertainment delivery technology and staying with the curve, said Nancy Jenkins, the company's director of partnership marketing.

She notes that five “Scene It” games are now available free to On-Demand consumers and that passengers on American Airlines can play “Scene It” games as part of their in-flight entertainment package. The company is promoting the American Idol All Star Challenge, a DVD game that takes viewers from auditions to the final round of the popular talent contest.

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