The Business of Children's Entertainment

Norma Odom Pecora

The proliferation of children's culture across all media in the last decade cannot be denied either by parents or non-parents alike. With the development of home video and the new technologies of interactive media including CD-ROMs, video, and electronic games, children's culture is now characterized by a circuitous web of cross-merchandising dominated by licensed characters associated with multiple toys, products, and services. With the rapid expansion of the children's marketplace, one consequence has been the complex construction of the child consumer, a category now segmented into multiple potential target age groupings, encompassing products as varied (or as similar) as Winnie the Pooh, Spice Girls, and electronic pets.

This broad arena is that of Norma Odom Pecora's The Business of Children's Entertainment. Pecora's approach is self-described as contributing to examinations of the political economy of the American children's entertainment industry, the "how and why of Minnie and Me T-shirts and Little Mermaid tennis shoes, the material goods," she adds, "not the cultural implications" (p. 2). More particularly, Pecora attempts to describe the shifting relationships between the production of children's programming and the toy industry through the 1980s and 1990s, a transition from "a casual working relationship" to the "economic factors ... [that] came to redefine children's entertainment" (p. 3).

This is territory previously mapped with considerably more complexity in works such as Stephen Kline's Out of the Garden: Toys, TV and Children's Culture in the Age of Marketing and Ellen Seiter's Sold Separately: Children and Parents in Consumer Culture, both published in 1993 (and both given only passing parenthetical mention). Other than the political economic detail of her case studies, Pecora's book does not contribute any particular new insights into the field of children's consumption patterns. In fact, one of its weaknesses is its seeming datedness, glaringly evident in a later chapter, "The Media Marketplace" (chap. 6), which fails to list either CD-ROMs, electronic games (as opposed to video games), or other interactive media in any substantive way -- domains which are currently burgeoning exponentially. Another weakness is the book's brevity, given the vast net it attempts to throw as its context. However, these weaknesses do not necessarily diminish Pecora's contribution as a competent general introduction to some economic relations between the allied industries of toys and television.

Several economic case studies from the television and toy industries are developed in two central chapters. These are framed by several skeletal chapters which locate Pecora's own project within a general field of concepts which include the construction of children as consumers (chap. 1), as audiences (chap. 2), the histories of the television and toy industries and their affiliations (chap. 3), and the future of children's culture in light of global media expansion (chap. 7). So skeletal are these surrounding chapters, however, that we barely gain a glimpse into either the history or the current state of research in this field.

The substance of Pecora's book are the two middle chapters in which several case studies are distilled into political economy models to account for kids' programming on commercial networks, alternative cable, and public television, and these shows' links to ancillary toy products. In 1981, the animated cartoon, Smurfs, was produced by Hanna-Barbera for NBC, with a clear line of division from the toy, food products, clothing, and retail goods whose merchandising rights were owned by Wallace Berrie Company. The later He-Man and the Masters of the Universe and Thundercats demonstrate more integrated alliances between television production and toy products, in which the former (a joint endeavour with clear contractual links between toymaker Mattel and animation company Filmation) gave way to the Thundercats "concept" in 1985, in which cartoon production (by Lorimar Telepictures) and its distribution were, from the beginning, closely affiliated with LJN Toys as master toy licensees, with all economic profits shared.

The unifying focus of Pecora's political economic approach is a market exchange model adapted from William Melody's 1973 book, Children's Television: The Economics of Exploitation. Employed to "explain the relationship of supply and demand as it existed in a system dominated by the networks" (p. 62), Pecora adds that Melody "argued for a model that placed the media industries on the supply side and advertisers on the demand side. `Audience' was the commodity" (p. 62). In chapter 5, "Alternatives" (a slightly misleading term given this realm of big business cable stations), Pecora begins adapting Melody's model to account for increasingly complex associations where boundaries between program producers, broadcast stations, advertisers, and product licensing agents begin to disappear. With her mapping of connections for the Disney Channel, for instance, all arrows in Melody's now-adapted market exchange model essentially point back to Disney: "this is the ultimate in blurred lines for children's entertainment: Advertiser, licensing agent, program supplier, and market manager are all one" (p. 85). (Pecora's other case study from the cable industry is Nickelodeon, owned by a conglomeration of Viacom International and Paramount.) While it is clear that Melody's approach expands the classic mass communication circuits to encompass a more complex interaction between producers and consumers, Pecora never makes explicit why his 1973 model is so pivotal to her own mapping. As such, the necessity for increased adaptations of his model to account for the changes and mutations in industry relations over time seems to indicate, conversely, the inability of one model to accurately account for the variabilities of these market alliances. With increasingly complicated cross-merchandising schemes, as well as the rise of the family market coming into play, the ability for such models to fully account for the range of exchanges between producer, commodity, and consumer seem deeply restrictive.

Considered otherwise, however, Pecora's study could be seen as implicitly struggling with the tensions between the methodological approaches of political economy and of a cultural analysis that might glean some insights into how Minnie or the Little Mermaid accrue and maintain value for child consumers, that precise value which makes their successful circulation across so many media important to track. This tension troubles the text at various moments where Pecora acknowledges the social analyses which her own project does not undertake. Pecora's own approach is particularly limited around the question of character licensing in which the logic of her adapted models must exclude the particularities of what makes some character-driven programs and toys so successful. We simply must accept that they are. Pecora notes that it is in this terrain of character licensing that "public broadcasting comes most to resemble commercial children's programming" (p. 107), noting the successes of Barney & Friends and Lamb Chop's Play-Along amongst other programs and products. While we can read that in 1993 over 200 Barney products were available with sales of $500 million and further licensing fees of $50 million, Pecora's approach must stop short of any analysis of why Barney or Lamb Chop have come to have such cachet within this market over other characters dressed up in fuzzy suits.

Pecora's final chapter on "International Expansion" brings us to expanded market thresholds, which she describes as "not new," noting that "licensed versions of Howdy Doody merchandise and the program were available in Canada and Mexico, and Hanna-Barbera and Disney cartoons have long been a part of the international marketplace" (pp. 134-135). Pecora's key examples in international distribution are Zodiac Entertainment (unable to compete with Disney and Hanna-Barbera, the company ended its first-run, syndicated programming in 1994) and Saban Entertainment (Mighty Morphin Power Rangers). She notes that "animation translates well to foreign markets: It relies on stylized characters and generic time that require minimal cultural interpretation" (p. 136). In this international arena, it is perhaps more pressingly questions of a cross-cultural nature that predominate over the actual circuits of economic relations between programmers, toy licensees, and international consumers. An all-too-brief section on co-productions hints at this, as Pecora identifies the International Agent as a new element in Melody's adapted model. Citing Disney studio's joint venture with Scottish Television, she describes: "Episodes of The Disney Club are produced with a local host and audience, interspersed with segments from American versions of the program" (p. 141). While Pecora remains again in a purely descriptive, rather than analytical realm, the force of these new relationships do not go unrecognized by her, as she concludes her chapter: "But what does it mean to a world raised on the Mighty Morphin Rangers or Widget? Will we, at one level, develop a common language, or will we lose a cultural richness as indigenous stories are replaced by Hollywood fantasy?" (p. 151). As is by now apparent, Pecora might pose such questions in the final instance, but her own study only ventures to lay the foundations to begin exploring these more problematic cultural implications.

References

Kline, Stephen. (1993). Out of the garden: Toys, TV and children\\\'s culture in the age of marketing. Toronto: Garamond Press.

Melody, William. (1973). Children's television: The economics of exploitation. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Seiter, Ellen. (1993). Sold separately: Children and parents in consumer culture. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.



  •  Announcements
    Atom logo
    RSS2 logo
    RSS1 logo
  •  Current Issue
    Atom logo
    RSS2 logo
    RSS1 logo
  •  Thesis Abstracts
    Atom logo
    RSS2 logo
    RSS1 logo

We wish to acknowledge the financial support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for their financial support through theAid to Scholarly Journals Program.

SSHRC LOGO