But what would that be? Readers have suggested that Universal could focus on reintroducing characters such as Woody Woodpecker and ET to today's kids, thus increasing the appeal of the existing land. Would Universal do that? Let's look at what corporate parent NBCUniversal is doing to appeal to the pre-school family market, for clues as to what its theme park strategy toward those potential visitors might be.
Disclosure time: My children are in their teens now, so we've moved out of this target market. And we don't subscribe to cable TV in our household, so I had to do some extra research on available channels targeted to little kids. Disney Junior and Viacom's Nick Jr. are the leaders in this space, but NBCUniversal has a pre-schooler channel, too: Sprout.
Although NBCUniversal manages the channel, it does not own it outright. Sprout is a joint venture with partners PBS and Sesame Workshop, and that complicates matters should NBCUniversal want to build a Sprout-themed kiddie land in its U.S. theme parks. (Here's some background on Sprout, from the New York Times.)
Sprout's programming includes shows for PBS and Sesame Workshop, as well as independent productions licensed for U.S. viewers from children's TV production companies around the world. But domestic broadcast and cable distribution rights do not necessarily include the rights to develop related theme park attractions. While Universal holds the theme park rights to Sesame Workshop characters in Japan and Singapore, SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment owns those rights in the United States. That means no Sesame Street characters in a Sprout theme park land, even though they're prominent on the Sprout channel.
For what it's worth, SeaWorld's license with Sesame Workshop expires on December 31, 2021, according to its Prospectus filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, so if Universal wants to get those theme park rights within the next eight years, it's going to need to buy out SeaWorld.
There's plenty else on Sprout, of course, which could provide Universal Creative enough material to fashion an impressive kids' land. Barney's already in the Kidzone. The NBC Kids block, which broadcasts Sprout programming on the NBC broadcast network on Saturday mornings, includes potential theme park franchises in The Chica Show, Pajanimals and Justin Time.
Illustrating the complicated business relationships involved in independently produced entertainment, Justin Time, which is production of Canada's Guru Studios, airs on Disney Junior in its home nation. Pajanimals is a production of The Jim Henson Company, which has spawned or sold properties to multiple partners and competitors of Universal's.
(Side note: Let's review just how influential Henson has been in children's entertainment. Henson created the Muppets, which provided much of the cast of Sesame Street, the foundation upon which the company Sesame Workshop was built. Sesame Workshop also has produced The Electric Company and Dragon Tales, among other children's franchises. When Henson considered selling out to Disney, just before his death, the international division of Henson's company split, creating HIT [Henson International Television] Entertainment, which created Bob the Builder and Kipper the Dog before acquiring Barney and Thomas the Tank Engine, among other properties. After Jim Henson's death, his heirs decided not to sell the company to Disney, but they did finally sell the rights to the Muppets to Disney in 2004. The Jim Henson Company, minus the Muppets, remains independent, producing Pajanimals for NBCUniversal's Sprout and movies such as Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day for… Walt Disney Pictures. Personal note: Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day just wrapped filming at my son's school in Pasadena. That same school also served as the filming site for Sam Witwicky's high school in the first Transformers movie, which, of course, inspired Universal's hit new theme park attractions. I swear, sometimes I feel like James Burke, writing this stuff.)
Ultimately, if Universal wants complete control of the properties on Sprout, it's going to need to create a children's television production division within Universal Studios and start creating its own kids TV properties. A couple of recent personnel moves at NBCUniversal have placed individuals with TV development and licensing experience into key positions with the company, however.
This week, Universal announced that Jeff Shell, who formerly oversaw NBCUniversal owner Comcast's cable TV networks, will succeed Ron Meyer as the head of Universal Studios. (Meyer, 69, will remain with NBCUniversal in a "senior statesman role," according to the New York Times.)
Earlier this year, NBCUniversal hired executive Russell Hampton from Disney to handle "franchise management" for Universal. Here's a key quote from The Hollywood Reporter:
"NBCUniversal has an amazing collection of assets," Hampton tells THR, citing properties like Top Chef, preschool channel Sprout and the Despicable Me franchise as prime examples. "The best way to monetize IP is creating mega-franchises, properties that can span multiple demographics."
Obviously, Universal Creative and the Universal theme parks already have started developing Despicable Me and its Minions as a major theme park franchise. Hampton's quote suggests that Universal is considering Sprout in that same context.
Universal doesn't need to create its own children's television entertainment to bring Sprout to its theme parks, of course. Universal could opt to negotiate and sign licensing deals with the various producers of Sprout's TV shows, instead. However, at some point, Universal management will need to confront the question of which is the more affordable option -- license for TV and theme parks, or just create and produce the characters itself.
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