Five years ago, Barney the purple dinosaur was a dominant feature on the children's television landscape, as famous as as Big Bird and as popular as the Rugrats.
Preschool children incessantly nagged their Barney-hating parents to buy them sing-along videotapes or tickets to the dinosaur's stage shows. Toy stores overflowed with stuffed animals, miniature playhouses and other merchandise that featured Barney and his prehistoric friends, Baby Bop and B.J.
But in recent years Barney has become an endangered species, eclipsed by the likes of Clifford the Big Red Dog and Dora the Explorer. Barney's new owners plan to change that with an advertising and promotional push aimed at a new generation of 2-year-olds that have never met the garish-colored, joy-spreading T-Rex.
Hit Entertainment of London, which purchased Barney's Lyrick Studios for $275 million last year, will begin broadcasting 20 new "Barney and Friends" episodes on PBS in September, the first new episodes in two and a half years. The programs will be backed by a first-ever television advertising campaign — a $6 million effort that begins Sept. 1 — along with a wave of promotions, a line of 16 new toys (like "Move 'N Groove Dance Mat Barney") from Fisher-Price and a 70-city nationwide stage tour starting in January.
With the marketing assault, Hit Entertainment hopes to restore some if not all of Barney's audience and cash-making powers. At his peak, in the 1996-1997 season, Barney was the No. 1 children's show on PBS with an average of 2.08 million preschool viewers, PBS said. By this April, that number was 1.07 million children, PBS said. Nielsen Ratings said Barney was the No. 6 children's show on PBS in April.
In 1998, Barney brought in $750 million in retail sales of licensed merchandise, but the next year, the last year for which numbers are available, the total had fallen to $550 million, according to License! Magazine, a New York trade magazine. Barney, which started as a character in videotapes 15 years ago, will have to overcome an intimidating set of marketing challenges. There is simply much more to watch than a few years ago, with Nickelodeon, Noggin, Cartoon Network, Toon Disney and numerous other choices for children, not to mention PBS's increased number of shows for preschoolers.
"The competition is fierce and it's reflective of the power youth have on marketing overall," said Jonathan Goldmacher, general manager of Kid Connection in New York, a unit of the Saatchi & Saatchi advertising agency that specializes in youth marketing.
Barney also needs to improve his image with parents, a problem that became so bad last decade that he was regularly lambasted in the media, and even sparked the creation of Web sites like "The Jihad to Destroy Barney."
"One of the keys to the success of `Sesame Street' is that it could be viewed on a lot of different levels — there's enough in there to entertain parents," said Marty Brochstein, executive editor of The Licensing Letter, a trade publication in New York. "Barney never had that. He was always unabashedly aimed at his target audience, which are not the parents. And at a certain point, the parents just couldn't watch it."
That is why Hit Entertainment's strategy with the advertising campaign is to get across the benefits of Barney to parents. The very things that grate on the adults are what make Barney educational for children. Barney speaks directly to preschoolers through the use of time-tested techniques like a sweet voice and repetition, said Sue Beddingfield, Hit's senior vice president for United States marketing. The show teaches children roughly 1 to 3 years old about things like sharing, responsibility and caring.
Chris Steele, general manager of Adair-Greene in Atlanta, the agency that created the Barney ad campaign, said the problem was that Hit's research showed that while many mothers had heard of Barney, they did not understand his benefits for children.
"Kids loved him no matter what," Mr. Steele said, "but moms needed to understand him better."
The campaign uses an emotional approach to help that understanding. The television spot uses no voiceovers or music, just natural sound, and opens on children banging pots and pans as the line, "This is a symphony" scrolls across the screen. As children scribble on paper, "This is a masterpiece" appears on the screen. The last screen shows children running to hug Barney, and the line that comes on the screen says: "This is a beloved friend."
"We're hoping people will say `Oh my God, I can't believe this is a spot for Barney,' " Mr. Steele said. "We're hoping a tear wells up in the eye."
The commercials will air on adult programs like "Oprah" and its ads will appear in parenting and women's service magazines. Even the decision to make new episodes had the parents in mind, Ms. Beddingfield said. The new episodes feature a new set and the show's fifth cast. "The new set is a park setting that is much more natural and realistic, and I think therefore relevant — not that kids notice the difference, but the moms notice the difference."
Hit's efforts will go a long way towards determining whether Barney will join the ranks of long-lasting children's characters like Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse, or end up in the back bins like so many Alfs and Smurfs. Analysts say Barney is here to stay.
"Barney is the sort of brand that just won't die," said Steven Ekstract, publisher of License! Magazine and the father of three. "Kids love it."
Mr. Siegel said, "Barney has a lot of timeless qualities — a sweetness, naïveté and accessibility to small children that speaks to its longevity."
Barney also has PBS. The network is the premiere vehicle for children's programming, said Mr. Goldmacher, of Saatchi & Saatchi's Kid Connection, and its educational bent extends an unofficial seal of approval to shows. Barney has been on PBS for a decade.
"The good news is Barney finds a new audience — a new crop of 3- and 4-year olds — every three and four years," said John F. Wilson, co-chief programming executive at PBS. "I think everything Barney does shows he is an established show and character."
Patricia Winters Lauro, The New York Times - August 12, 2002
Copyright © 2002 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.