We talk to Sesame Workshop’s Maura Regan about preschool trends, Furchester Hotel and celebrating whimsy.
Senior Vice President and General Manager, International Media Business, Sesame Workshop
Firstly, what were your big successes in 2015?
This last year was a banner one. Firstly, Sesame Workshop announced a new and exciting five-year partnership with HBO that provides critical funding to ensure both continued production of Sesame Street and a sustainable business model for the future of Sesame Workshop’s broader mission. A priority for us was to continue to make the show available to the PBS audience. With the support of HBO, each season’s new episodes will be available to PBS and its member stations for free. So it’s a win-win for the partners as well as our viewers.
Second, we are now collaborating with three of China’s top digital platforms: Baidu’s iQIYI, Tencent Video, and Alibaba’s Tmall Box. In the next two years, we’ll provide Sesame Street along with other spin-offs, dubbed into Mandarin Chinese, to all three platforms. We’ll also be working with each of them to bring more unique experiences to the market both on and off-line with promotions and special events.
We’re continuing to have loads of fun with The Furchester Hotel. For those who wanted to get up close and personal with their favorite furry friends, live events this summer extended the laughter. At the end of July, Furgus and Phoebe (who, by the way, can speak dozens of animal languages including sheep, chicken, cow, and hazel dormouse) appeared at the CBeebies Big Day Out weekend in Weston-Super-Mare. The duo performed in a special stage show called Kitchen Catastrophe with two up-and-coming chefs. The Furchester Hotel characters also appeared in Big Fun Showtime at CBeebies Land this August, and there are plans for a bigger role at the attraction next year. Internationally, we’ve got deals with PUMA, Uniqlo and Bathing Ape. So, as you can see, we’ve been a little busy, but having a good time!
And what are your big properties within the preschool space for 2016?
Sesame Street is the cornerstone of our preschool franchise. This year, Sesame Street will launch season 46 with the boldest changes to the Street to date including new preschool-relevant themes, new show open and closing songs, an updated set, and a new segment called Smart Cookies. We’re excited to bring the timeless lessons of Sesame Street to viewers; like learning numbers from The Count, inner strength from Elmo, and kindness from Abby.
As always, Sesame Street features a dazzling array of celebrities in the new season including Gwen Stefani, Pharrell, Nick Jonas, Fifth Harmony, Sara Bareilles, Alan Cumming, Ne-Yo, Aloe Blacc, Tracee Ellis Ross, and Gina Rodriguez.
What has been the biggest change in the preschool environment in 2015?
There has been a shift from overt educational messaging like learning ABCs and 123s to more socio-emotional lessons. For us, it means launching a new initiative called Sesame Street’s Everyday Heroes Club, to encourage kids and families to engage in acts of kindness, and to teach them that practicing kindness not only makes other people feel good, you feel good too. The project will include engaging online activities, hilarious Muppet videos, local events and a social media campaign to share stories.
Sesame Street’s Everyday Heroes Club promotes acts of kindness, big and small, including helping a friend or a family member; being kind to the environment or to animals; volunteering to help others, and so much more. Kids and families can share their act of kindness online to earn a membership card, club certificate, and special badges including Manners, Respect, Giving and Sharing.
In our busy, complicated world, even a small act of kindness can make a surprisingly big difference. We are so excited about this project because it represents the essence of who we are as an organization: we teach through our engaging content and our furry, loveable Muppets, while our wonderful partners and our most engaged audience members help us spread the word.
Just how competitive is the licensed preschool sector at the moment? What is the main challenge for you as a brand owner?
Admittedly, the preschool sector is a hugely crowded landscape. But it’s flattering to know that many of today’s programs took inspiration from the creative mix of education and entertainment that Sesame Street pioneered 46 years ago.
What is taking up shelf space today, understandably, is products from the movie franchise Star Wars. Being a fan myself, it’s exciting to see what’s new and re-imagined.
How is the retail environment for preschool properties currently? Are retailers willing to take a risk on newer brands or is it hard with so many classic brands still performing so well to get a break?
Retailers want the latest and greatest, but are also looking for sure bets. That’s why The Furchester Hotel is doing so well. It’s new and different, but has the validation of Sesame Street behind it. In licensing, we recently announced several new licensees–adding to an exciting line-up of products for 2016 – including Alfred Franks & Bartlett (eyewear), PMS (amusement plush, clocks, balls and pillows) and Zak Designs (Melamine). Hasbro has created innovative products that bring The Furchester Hotel family to life and reflect the fun and humour of the show. Complementing Hasbro, publishing partner Penguin, and magazine partner Immediate Media, both launched in July, followed by Abbey Home Media with DVDs in September.
Do you think that the consumer is much more savvy now as to what they will buy? What do you think they look for?
Whether you’re in the US, China, or Latin America, from a global perspective, consumers are incredible savvy. They look at design aesthetics and, of course, value. They love products that engage and excite their kids, but the products have to have to right price point.
Is having a link with the parents vital? For example, older brands – such as Teletubbies and The Clangers – might have more resonance because they watched them/played with the toys growing up?
Being from Sesame Street, I can appreciate the question! It certainly doesn’t hurt if a brand has a connection with parents, but I do believe there is room for new brands if the quality is there.
Do you see any major trends emerging for 2016?
Like with Star Wars, Teletubbies and The Clangers, legacy brands are hot. But at the heart of a good product is a great story. The successful brands will be the ones that are re-imagined and re-interpreted for a new generation of fans. Lastly, consumers are looking for products that ‘give back’. The revenue generated from the sale of Sesame Street products go back to helping kids around the world with engaging educational content. For today’s savvy consumer, that’s an important message.
What would you most like to see happen within the licensed preschool market in 2016?
I would love to see even more light-hearted products that celebrate free-play, whimsy and imagination.