A Bigger Focus on Brands Since its formation in 1989 by Peter Orton as a third-party program distributor specializing in young children's entertainment, U.K.-based HIT Entertainment has grown to be a global public compa

April 6, 2018

13 Min Read

A Bigger Focus on Brands

Since its formation in 1989 by Peter Orton as a third-party program distributor specializing in young children's entertainment, U.K.-based HIT Entertainment has grown to be a global public company with 200 employees in six offices throughout the world.

Over the past 20 years, an impressive list of acquisitions and development has catapulted HIT to the forefront of children's entertainment. The company acquired Lyric Studios, and with it Barney; and Gullane Entertainment, and with it, Thomas the Tank Engine and Guiness World Records. In 1999, HIT debuted Bob the Builder, one of the world's most successful preschool series; Angelina Ballerina; and Pingu. The company also has a stake in PBS KIDS Sprout, the first 24-hour digital preschool channel in the U.S., and VOD Service, in which it was a launch partner. And HIT has a similar stake in JimJam, in which it is partnered with Chellomedia. i1_592.jpg

Not bad, you might think, for the first 20 years, and HIT executives maintain a bright outlook for the coming years, as well.

A key to future growth will be a focus on the brands, rather than the business discipline. As chief executive officer Jeff Dunn reveals: "I want to make the company much more brand-focused. We have some truly great brands, but the company has tended to be organized along lines of business, and I want to make it much more focused on managing brands across all HIT businesses." i2_295.jpg

Pam Westman, executive vice president in the Americas, and Peter Byrne, executive vice president, international, agree that the focus on managing the brand across all HIT's different business lines has a number of significant consequences for the way the business is run. Perhaps the most important is that HIT operates with an overall global strategy, which is easily molded to local needs.

Says Westman, "We trust our local offices to match our global strategy to the demands of the local market." For example, she points to the differences between Bob and Barney: "Bob is very much bigger internationally, and Barney is very much bigger in the U.S.," she acknowledges. But, she insists, "We understand that, and we manage it, because all of our strategies are focused on the management of individual brands." i3_186.jpg

Another cornerstone of HIT's future strategy is partnerships. The company has just announced the appointment of Fisher-Price as its global master toy licensee for the company's biggest brand, Thomas & Friends, the world's No. 1 preschool property. While Westman enthuses about the relationship with WNET Thirteen in the U.S., which has seen the New York PBS station named HIT Entertainment's PBS Presenting Partner, HIT has a co-producership with Nick Jr. U.K. on the new CGI series "Angelina Ballerina The Next Steps" and has a relationship with Treehouse in Canada. Byrne is as enthusiastic about the relationships with JimJam, an international dedicated preschool channel that launched in December 2007. Since launching, the channel has expanded into 10 million homes in Italy, Poland, Russia, Hungary and the Benelux countries, with plans to expand to the Middle East and Asia. He also touts strategic relationships with the BBC in the U.K., NHK and TV Tokyo in Japan, Germany's Super RTL, ABC Australia, Mexico's TV Azteca and many more.

Of course, broadcast is the bedrock business, and both Westman and Byrne emphasize the importance they attach to securing broadcast distribution through traditional broadcast sales and the establishment of branded blocks, such as Niños Siete with TV Azteca in Mexico and Les ZouZous on France 5 and strategic stakes in broadcasters such as Sprout and JimJam.

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But there are many other exciting ways in which the HIT Entertainment business continues to grow at a very impressive rate.

"Publishing is crucially important to what we do," insists Westman, adding, "two of our core brands, Thomas and Angelina, have a strong publishing heritage, and we are also looking to expand this into English as a second language through our core brands."

Byrne adds: "In partnership with Linguaphone, we have established Pingu-branded English schools and curricula in Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Turkey, Singapore, South Africa and Egypt. Education will be an increasingly important part of what we do in the future, and we have a dedicated team in-house working on plans to develop this side of our business, including developing Bob-themed education materials for use in nurseries and primary schools, set to launch in China later this year."

And China has recently opened its doors to Thomas & Friends, which debuted on national broadcaster CCTV. Says Byrne, "It will be supported by a fully integrated consumer products campaign led by our agent for the region, PPW Publishing, through Toys"R"Us, a new Thomas & Friends Chinese language Web site and a successful publishing program with Children's Fun Publishing."

Thomas has been making tracks in other markets, as well. Long popular in Japan, as illustrated by the hugely successful Thomas Land, that concept has been translated with equal impact to the U.K. The Thomas Land attraction, in the country of his birth, opened at Drayton Manor in 2008 and was greeted, reports Byrne, "with attendance up 47 percent and merchandising sales up 200 percent."

Live events and themed installations are a very important part of the future for HIT, with Barney having great success with theatrical events in both the U.S. and South America. That success is matched by Bob's theatrical outings internationally.

In addition, HIT has developed a concept, The Little Big Club, which will, says Byrne, "be a musical extravaganza featuring all our core brands." HIT tested the concept to rave reviews in Hong Kong, and the show will debut in the spring of 2010 in the U.K., with tours of Europe, Asia and the U.S. being planned.

Westman says, "Over the next two years, our strategy will be to re-energize our core brands and focus heavily on managing those brands," pointing to the new CGI series of "Thomas & Friends" and "Bob the Builder," as well as the CGI and further development of Angelina in "Angelina Ballerina The Next Steps."

However, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the future wouldn't properly be the future without something new, something exciting, some radical departure. And true to form, HIT will deliver on all three.

HIT has a development team hard at work, creating, according to both Westman and Byrne, "around 30 projects a year, with the intention we should get at least one green light annually."

HIT currently has three new projects under way: "Mike The Knight," "The Real Mees" and "Kids Hate Clowns."

"Mike The Knight," produced in CGI by Lunar Jim creator Alexander Bar, focuses on 10-year-old Mike, a knight with a mission: "to be a knight and do it right!"

HIT has started development on an exciting new preschool show, "The Real Mees" from Waybuloo creator Dan Good, which encourages kids under 6 to believe in themselves.

And in early development from Firestep & Impossible Pictures, "Kids Hate Clowns," focuses on prim and proper Chloe, a 13-year-old whose world is turned upside down when three distant relatives, who just happen to be clowns, turn up and move in.

With so much going on, it might be thought that Westman and Byrne would have difficulty in picking key hopes for the future—but they don't. Both look to the recently launched HIT Movies division, expecting this division will, by the time HIT turns 25, be a major player in the family movie arena. Westman also would like to see "Barney completely reinvigorated. He is such an iconic character here," she says. "And I would also like to see us have really developed Angelina here in the Americas and grow her to the same standing as Thomas."

Angelina features in Byrne's wish list for the silver jubilee, too. "I would like to see us greatly extend our reach both from a global and demographic perspective," says Byrne. "We have always been well known for boy brands such as Thomas and Bob the Builder and with the upcoming developments on Angelina Ballerina, we are confident that this property will achieve the same levels of success in the girls market.

"Along with our core brands, you will see a huge development on new brands in the pipeline and in new and exciting demographic reach. We hope to roll out a Thomas Land in every major continent over the next five years."

There's a lot going on at HIT Entertainment and even more going on with its Hit List, but given the extraordinary success of the past 20 years, it would be a sure bet that the future of HIT will continue to produce hit after hit after hit.

THOMAS THE TANK ENGINE

65 Years of Great Destinations

Thomas first appeared in print in 1946, although he was not the first children's book about railways written by the Rev. W. Audrey. That was "The Railway Engines," published in 1945. And although the books were very successful—Audrey published one new book every year between 1945 and 1972—it was not until television producer Britt Allcroft, shooting a documentary about preserved steam railways, was reminded of the books she had enjoyed in her childhood and determined to bring them to television screens, that Thomas' big journey really started.

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The first series steamed into British homes in October 1984 and was an instant hit. Growing rapidly in popularity, it was soon attracting audiences of 8.5 million-plus—more than some sports programs. And that success has continued year after year.

In 1989, Thomas was picked up by PBS KIDS in America and YTV Canada. Japan followed in 1991, as did Germany in 1997. Now Thomas has entertained, educated and delighted children and their parents in 185 countries.

In 2000, Thomas starred in his own movie, Thomas and the Magic Railroad, and the huge demand for Thomas licensing (one little girl wrote asking for a Thomas knife, fork and spoon set "so that I can have my tea with Thomas") has been met by countless games and toys, a theme park in Japan and hundreds of Day Out with Thomas events in the U.S., U.K. and Canada.

It's been a long journey for a little tank engine and his friends, but with a third generation of fans falling in love with HIT Entertainment's new series "Thomas & Friends" and his latest feature-length DVD special, "Thomas & Friends: The Great Discovery," selling more than 100,000 units to date and winning the prestigious British Video Association Award for best marketing, it is a journey that isn't about to end anytime soon.

ANGELINA BALLERINA

Dancing into the Future

Since her debut, Angelina has been entrancing young girls everywhere and encouraging them to pursue their dreams. And this is exactly what creators Katherine Holabird and Helen Craig wanted her to do when they first created the character in 1983.

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That very enchanting and positive encouragement will continue later this year with a new series. The HIT Entertainment, Nick Jr. U.K. and PBS Thirteen's co-production, "Angelina Ballerina The Next Steps," following the adventures of the now 8-year-old Angelina as she embarks on the next stage of her life at the performing arts school, The Camembert Academy, launches on Nick Jr. in the U.K. and PBS in the U.S. this autumn.

Already, the new CGI series has been presold to France 5, Germany's Kika, ABC Australia, ETV Estonia, and PIP for Serbia, Bosnia and Scandinavia.

In the U.S., Penguin will continue to publish the classic books and in fall 2010 will launch a series of TV ties-ins in the CGI-animated art style. And as the new CGI series hits TV screens this autumn, a new feature-length Angelina DVD will dance onto retail shelves in fall 2010, followed by additional new releases in holiday 2010 and spring 2011.

In addition, the exciting new series—which introduces new boy characters such as Marco, a student from the tropical country of Costa Mousa, and AJ, a mouseling obsessed with hip-hop—will be supported by a collaboration between HIT Entertainment and The English National Ballet for a live ballet, Angelina Ballerina's Big Audition.

Following their previous successful collaboration on Angelina's Star Performance, which since its debut in 2007 has been seen by 200,000 children and parents, Angelina Ballerina's Big Audition opened in May in the U.K., where it will tour before heading to Australia and the Middle East in 2010.

BOB THE BUILDER

Ten years: Yes, We Can!

The oldest showbiz truism in the world is never rewrite a hit, and by many standards, Bob the Builder, which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary, is a hit that doesn't need rewriting. The statistics—the show is broadcast in more than 240 territories, aired in 45 languages and has worldwide retail sales in excess of $4 billion—tell the story in any of Bob's many languages: Bob the Builder doesn't need fixing.

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Bob's can-do appeal is clear everywhere. In Germany, more than 77 percent of the nation's children have seen at least one episode, and broadcaster and licensing agent Super RTL2 has just launched year two of the massively successful Make Germany Bloom campaign with five leading retailers, including Toys"R"Us, Muller and Karstadt. And Super RTL also has teamed up with the German government and leading DIY retailer Bauhaus to launch Project Renovate, a green campaign aimed at nursery schools.

Toys"R"Us has teamed with Bob in promotional campaigns in Japan, the Netherlands and France.

In Australia, the country's biggest department store chain, Myer, has permanent pop-up workshop areas at its flagship stores in Sydney and Melbourne, and Target has strengthened its support of Bob with featured wall space, in-store appearances and a special promotion in the annual Kids Week catalog.

In Greece, leading retailer Goody's sold more than 300,000 Bob-themed meals in January alone.

And throughout Europe, Bob has tied up deals with Procter & Gamble for Pampers Pull Ups and baby wipes and Tupperware for plasticware.

With the Bob 4D movie launched this year at Legoland parks in the U.S., U.K., Germany and Denmark, and Bob's CGI feature—The Legend of the Golden Hammer—debuting this year ahead of his first CGI series in 2010, it's clear that Bob the Builder is still growing and doesn't need to be changed.

NEW PROPERTIES

HIT Defines the Future

HIT Entertainment unveiled three new properties last month that stand to define the future of kids' programming.

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"Mike The Knight" is a new offering from Lunar Jim creator Alexander Bar. Produced in CGI, the 52x10 series centers around 10-year-old Mike, whose mission in life is "to be a knight and do it right." In pursuit of this ambition, Mike sets out to protect his kingdom and make mom proud.

"The Real Mees," also 52x10, is from Waybuloo creator Dan Good. Confidence, self-belief and good citizenship are at the heart of this CGI series that encourages kids to believe in themselves.

The final offering in the new HIT line-up is "Kids Hate Clowns." This might seem counterintuitive, but then you haven't met the prim and proper 13-year-old Chloe or her three distant relatives, who happen to be clowns. They turn up one day, move in and totally trash her street cred. This high-octane comedy for 8- to 12-year-olds challenges and plays on the preconception of clowns as we see them go about their everyday lives. They are just clowning around and are resolute in their belief that everything can be solved by a custard pie.

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