Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Hasbro TV

I've been a bit slow to the punch with this one, but since it's become a mini-hotbed of controversy, I figured I should go ahead and add my two cents. Last week toy giant Hasbro, the makers of Transformers and My Little Pony (among many, many others), announced it was teaming up with Discovery to launch a new television network featuring, you guessed it, "content built around the toymaker’s brands". Here's an excerpt of Plaything coverage of the announcement details:
Both the network and the venture’s online component will feature content from Hasbro’s portfolio of entertainment and educational properties, including original programming for animation, game shows and live-action series and specials. New children’s and family entertainment and educational programming will be based on brands such as Romper Room, Trivial Pursuit, Scrabble, Cranium, My Little Pony, G.I. Joe, Game of Life, Tonka and Transformers, among others. The TV network and online presence also will include content from Discovery’s library of children’s educational programming, such as Bindi The Jungle Girl, Endurance, Tutenstein, Hi-5, Flight 29 Down and Peep and the Big Wide World, as well as programming from third-party producers. Creative work will start in the next few months, the company says, beginning with early stage development for properties including Romper Room, Tonka, G.I. Joe, Transformers and My Little Pony.

The partnership will also mean an early retirement for the Discovery Kids Network, although apparently the "Discovery Kids" brand will continue on as a merchandising brand and on international networks. It's especially sad that a full-blown product-centric network will be replacing one originally conceived as an educational network...even if Discovery Kids was already pretty heavily commercialized. The message this announcement sends is loud and clear...the children's industries are ready to take on the last weary sentinel of children's media regulation, the separation (no matter how minute) of ads and content. Although governmental regulation of advertising to children has waned significantly, old policies restricting certain types of cross-promotional activities within television programs or time blocks directed specifically at children have somehow survived. And although its become increasingly difficult to have programs labelled as "program-length commercials" anymore, it's hard to imagine that the FCC (or CARU at the very least) won't be forced to investigate the ethics and legality of an whole children's network built entirely around product placement.

Children's advocacy groups are already calling foul. As Ira Teinowitz writes on The Wrap, the Hasbro/Discovery deal "may wave a red flag in front of regulators already worried about TV product placement and embedded advertising," and groups such as the Center for Digital Democracy, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) and Commercial Alert are making sure that red flag isn't ignored. For example, as Jeff Chester, exec director of the Center for Digital Democracy, describes (in Teinowitz's article):
“The [Federal Communications Communications] already has an open proceeding on embedded advertising. This proposed network raises issues for the children’s market that policy makers are going to have to deal with.”

and from Susan Linn, director of the CCFC:
“Hasbro's deal means that the new network will be one long infomercial aimed at children...As evident from TV programs like the Bratz and others, the FCC doesn't seem to equate program-length commercials with product placement--but they should.

and from Robert Weissman, managing director of Commercial Alert:
“It’s very hard, to see this as anything but a scheme to deliver program length advertisements to children and a massive loophole in the current rules."

Of course, there are also various statements and articles that take a more pessimistic approach, claiming that with all the licensing, cross-media partnerships, product placement, branding and merchandising already prevalent within children's television and other media, a toy-based network wouldn't make much of a difference. But although it might seem that way (especially with examples like the Disney channel floating around), it's not necessarily the same. Starting with a clearly defined product-centric strategy does impact on the contents of the resulting media texts...product cycles can put serious strains on creativity and enforce rigid (economic-driven) structural demands on character development, narrative, etc. Think of the formulaic plotlines found in every episode of Pokemon you've ever seen and you'll see what I'm getting at. And it certainly does impact upon the relationships kids are able to build with their toys AND their media (not to mention play, and all the other realms of activity at the centre of the commercialization debates) when every point of contact is telling them that the only (or at least most important) way to engage is to buy/collect/consume. For more on this, I refer you once again to Buckingham and Sefton-Green's article explaining why collectible toy-centric media (a category in which Transformers, Tonka and My Little Pony certainly belong) are so uniquely effective and devious, entitled Gotta Catch 'em All: Structure, Agency and Pedagogy in Children's Media Culture - it does a great job of balancing out the different p.o.v.'s, while still coming to some pretty clear and useful conclusions about the role of toy-based media brands in contemporary childhood.

Besides which, I just have to say that just because product-placement is prevalent within children's media culture (oftentimes in bold defiance of the regulations against it) doesn't mean that newer, more audacious developments don't warrant public scrutiny and resistance. What this partnership communicates is that left unchecked the children's industries will just continue to push at the limits of what society deems to be an acceptable level of commercialization (and commercial exploitation) in children's culture until they're reigned in or passed the point of no return (which is usually bad news for everyone involved). Or they fail miserably (on that note, I can't wait to see what the Mommy Blogs have to say about this). Either way, this Hasbro deal could present a good locus for increased public (including kids!) engagement on these issues.

For more on the Hasbro deal, check out this recent article by Claude Brodesser-Akner for Advertising Age on Habro's Transformer-ation from toy maker to entertainment powerhouse, courtesy of the CCFC, or this article in the Wall Street Journal.

And be sure to read the full statements released by the CCFC and Commercial Alert.


Anonymous said...

You say "I can't wait to see what the Mommy Blogs say about this" -- but as this article (http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5gBUlL7j_KWQ_OpvVzeykiEsvs-KAD981028G0) shows, many of them are product placement outlets as well.

BTW, the link to the Pokemon paper isn't working.

Sara M. Grimes said...

Thanks for the link - you're right, I should keep that in mind.

And thanks for the head's up - I'll find and post a new link shortly...it's definitely a "must read".


Sara M. Grimes said...

The link is now fixed!

Anonymous said...

Hasbro TV would rule.