The Wiggles have made such a strong and real connection with children and their parents, that even as they hit the top of BRW’s Top 50 Entertainers, there is no tall poppy syndrome in sight and a ‘good on them’ attitude abounds.
But it is a good time to explore what happens when children’s entertainment is presented to us in economic and marketing terms. BRW editor Tony Featherstone writes ‘The Wiggles are a great business story. They may not think of themselves as entrepeneurs but there is much to learn from their success. Think about it. The Wiggles identified a large and fast-growing market – children’s entertainment – that was fragmented and lacked the razzle-dazzle of entertainment for older people. They took time to understand their market: impressionable children with parents who pay for everything. They produced a great product, maintained the quality, got the marketing right, and stayed true to their customers. And they appear to have kept the most important factors for long-term success: passion and self-belief’.
I doubt that’s exactly how The Wiggles would describe themselves. No one who goes into early childhood education thinks of children quite that way (nor do they expect to become a millionaire).
But more and more ‘the market’ drives the development of children’s entertainment and even the ABC is in on the act. Last year, for example, ABC Enterprises advertised for expressions of interest to develop a program for either pre-school children or girls. Amongst other things, the advertisement explained that the program would be ‘a tangible asset of the ABC’ to be ‘valued as commercially saleable intellectual property’. It would have ‘broad international potential’ for both ‘TV program sales and ancillary rights exploitation’.
On 14 February, managing director of the ABC, Russell Balding, was questioned at a Senate estimates committee hearing (see pdf link here). Tasmanian Senator Kerry O’Brien focused on this issue.
‘Does that (the advertisement) give us an indication that the programs children will see in future on ABC television will be determined by the marketability and profitability of spin-off products, such as videos, DVDs, books, toys and other merchandise?’ he asked.
Russell Balding replied: ‘It will not get to the production stage if television does not want it. The driving factor here is the editorial and creative requirements of the director of television, in particular the head of children’s television’. He later continued: ‘[the potential for ancillary rights exploitation]is secondary to the requirements of television. We are looking here at owning some intellectual property in an asset – and I do not apologise – that hopefully will have a revenue generation stream down the track. The ABC is very much dependent upon its commercial operations to supplement its revenue. I am looking at hopefully investing in an asset, a property that television requires…then to capitalise on that and go forward.’
The questioning concluded:
Senator O’Brien: ‘I understand what you are saying: if it is not a quality project but has got some exploitation factors, it will not get up…if two programs are potentially good quality programs and one has better ancillary rights exploitation potential then the one with the ancillary rights exploitation potential will get up.’
Mr Balding: ‘Most probably, yes – if I can only afford to invest in one of those two projects.’
So if quality is not excluded, what’s the problem with the ABC making money from its product? The problem is that market potential can never be a benign ‘all things being equal’ consideration. Forget about the arguments over whether or not the ABC should have advertisements. With ‘ancillary rights exploitation’, television programmes become pseudo-advertisements. Ask any parent who has been to an ABC shop whether Maisy, Thomas or The Fimbles are just television programmes. In fact, the only shopping tantrum my oldest boy has ever had was in the door of an ABC shop.
And in this context, artistic risk and innovation have less chance of success. Could Play School – which encourages children to look at what they’ve got and imagine what it could become – be developed in an environment which puts such a high value on spin-off merchandise?
‘I like their early stuff’ is a boring refrain, but long before The Wiggles were ‘an interesting business model’ for the BRW, they were an excellent artistic model. Passionate, innovative and creative, they have demonstrated that making art and making money don’t need to be mutually exclusive. They should inspire any artist to follow their own creative dreams (although The Wiggles theme park – see link here – is a pretty big step away from art).
But as one of the ‘parents who pay for everything’, I would really like just a small haven where quality rules and merchandise comes way, way down the track. If it comes at all.
Sounds like something a family friendly government would provide.