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Making branded programming work

Stephen J. Davis, president, Hasbro Studios on making branded programming work

I’ve been in the branded entertainment business my entire career and learned early on that selling pre-sold, proven concepts carries tremendous value. That lesson has never been more evident than it is in today’s highly competitive international kids’ programming marketplace.

While there is always room for terrific new ideas, the opportunity for a higher rate of return and less risk makes branded content a must-have now for both distributors and broadcasters looking to cut through the clutter in an increasingly competitive environment.

Demand for kids’ programming based on well-known global brands has never been stronger, and extends beyond the scripted fare that has traditionally dominated the branded import-export space. International broadcasters today are also increasingly interested in acquiring reality and game show formats based on big, familiar brands.

In fact, shows adapted from board games, such as Family Game Night, have become a significant part of Hasbro Studios’ overseas strategy, filling a void in the marketplace for kids’ and family game shows after a long drought in that genre. Now we’re even creating local formats in particular territories (word and puzzle games perform well; competition games do incredibly well) and exposing a number of Hasbro games to those markets.

Hasbro is unique in that it has more than 1,500 brands that we can re-imagine, reinvent and reignite for television. These toy and game brands all hold nostalgic places in the hearts of viewers, who grew up with many of them. As we strive to expose these brands to a new generation, we always keep in mind that parents showing their children this fare for the first time will have extraordinarily high expectations.
It is not a responsibility programmers should take lightly. To succeed, it is critical to have superior product to make great television. The rest will follow if it is supported by a genuine creative effort-and by that I mean great storytelling, great characters and great visuals.

Toy TV no longer cuts it. Consumers are very sophisticated and have lots of choices, and if you’re making a 30- or 60-minute commercial you likely won’t succeed. Decisions are clearly informed by the needs of the toy or game business but also by the priorities of the broadcaster. We are not going to force a brand on TV just because it happens to be a brand priority. Not all good brands make good television.

When developing a show based on a brand, producers often find themselves walking a fine line between remaining true to its essence and making the show relevant to today’s kids. To make this process work efficiently and effectively, we’ve incorporated a number of “voices” in the creative process, teaming representatives from our brand and intellectual property groups with development executives and, of course, the showrunner. At the end of the day, the loudest voice at that table is the showrunner, who needs to have the freedom and flexibility to make a great show.

But by putting together all of the constituencies involved in shaping the re-imagination of a particular brand, we are better able to pay attention to the key touch points the show will influence.

Creating a desirable global TV brand also means taking into consideration shifts in consumer behavior. Hasbro has been around since 1923 and we are aware that our consumer base, although broad, is constantly changing. Through research, observation and talking to people, we must be very careful to make sure that what we do reflects the needs of our audience.

To attract the interest of the biggest broadcast and cable outlets worldwide, truly successful international distributors must maintain a global sensibility about proprietary development while remaining aware of their company’s heritage.

One of the great challenges of this business, and one of the things that makes my job so exciting, is the chance to create programming based on beloved brands that appeal to a contemporary audience. But it is no easy task to deliver great stories while never losing sight of a brand’s DNA. Of course, if it were simple to create branded kids’ programming that translates to a worldwide audience, what fun would it be?