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June 2005
Is Children's Entertainment Going to the Dogs?
By Susanne Deitzel

The world of children’s programming is vast and complicated. From creation to branding, from licensing to merchandising, savvy business skills must walk hand-in-hand with not just a little bit of luck, and a dash of magic as well.

Toni Steedman knows this all too well, for she is sitting on the precipice of what could be the launch of one of the largest children’s television concepts in recent history. You see, there is a new cuddly buddy in the neighborhood, and the little fella’s name is RAGGS.

 

RAGGS Unleashed

RAGGS was born when Steedman’s seven-year-old daughter (now a 23-year-old Manhattan-based marketing junior executive) wanted a family dog. As a substitute, Steedman and her daughter created an imaginary carpool character named RAGGS. Little did they realize that what they were imagining on those rides to and from school would someday become a reality.

For 20 years, Steedman had headed up a successful advertising agency, tapped into those early stories while she was developing an Eastland Mall marketing campaign. Called The RAGGS Kids Club, the promotion featured a colorful, mop-headed dog which quickly became as much a favorite of mall managers as children. The program grew to over 30 participating malls, and in the case of Eastland Mall, figures suggested mall-wide sales during the promotion jumped between 10 and 25 percent.

Recalls Steedman, “We all suspected that the concept of RAGGS as a mascot would work, what we didn’t expect was the incredible enthusiasm he generated from the kids. They were flocking to him, running into his arms, and were absolutely transfixed. We just stood back in awe of the warm effect he had on these little people.”

After several successful years as a mall-marketing program, RAGGS’ buzz continued to grow. In 2000, the character made a debut at the International Toy Fair in New York, followed by high-profile bookings at state fairs and theatre venues. From there, music CDs and videos followed, the demand for propelled the next career move for RAGGS – his move to the small screen.

In late 2001, with the encouragement of a Viacom executive, Steedman took her concept to the next level: After taking some time to develop the character and his ensemble of four canine counterparts, the RAGGS phenomenon was unleashed. Steedman found herself running two businesses.

Like a true stage mom, Steedman sold her advertising agency in 2002 to focus on bringing RAGGS to the masses. She admits it was a giant leap of faith, “My daughter, my parents, my friends and I discussed it at length – it was hard to go from the safe and comfortable into the great unknown. But I just felt we’d not only miss an incredible business opportunity, but also an opportunity to bring this wholesome musical adventure to kids who already seemed to love it. While not everyone agreed with me, the risk seemed worth it.”

The RAGGS Kids Club Band evolved into five characters playing ‘safe rock and roll’ for children between 4 and 7 years old. Explains Steedman, “Our vision was to build the characters on the foundation of what has worked for kids for generations, but also to give them contemporary personalities and sensibilities.

For example, RAGGS is the loyal, friendly heart of the group. Two strong female characters, the fashionable, athletic Trilby and the confident, brainy manager Razzles, provide great role models that teach girls they don’t have to limit themselves. Pido is the ‘cool guy,’ who shows you can do right and be yourself and still be cool, and B-Max is a positive songwriter who, while confined to a wheelchair, teaches the value of ability – not disability.”

She adds, “We wanted to provide a simple, yet layered approach that provided a good message without proselytizing, and playful fun entertainment that didn’t have to resort to playing the ‘bathroom humor’ card. We also wanted to incorporate the music in a big way. The emphasis on the band concept seemed important and somewhat original. Kids love the songs and, perhaps more than the generations before this one, understood what a band really is.”

Well, the formula appears to have chased the ball right out of the park. After pivotal meetings late last year, The RAGGS Kids Club Band was offered the chance of a lifetime.

 

Summit in Sydney

The company’s strategy had been to build the brand through grassroots marketing and events. That exposure combined with Steedman’s connections and tenacity paid off. In January, Steedman inked a co-production and distribution contract for 40 episodes of The RAGGS Kids with a highly regarded and experienced global media company, Southern Star International in Sydney, Australia  (international distributors for Barney and Wishbone and producers/distributors of several U.S. hits including “Hi 5,” which is seen on TLC and Discovery Kids.)

By March, Steedman found herself at a meeting with leading international experts to plan the show. She says, “We were essentially locked down in a conference room overlooking the Sydney harbor for ten days. Despite current projects and the feverish pitch of programming, every person at the meeting signed on. It was amazing – a group of the top children’s writers, producers and directors were excited beyond belief.”

The results of the summit sent tongues a-wagging and, before she left Sydney, Australia’s No. 1 network offered a contract for the RAGGS television series, sight unseen, for 65 episodes (increasing the original contract for 40 episodes). Compared to the typical broadcast process which includes producing and testing a pilot, and if lucky, signing for 13 or 26 episodes, the contract exceeded Steedman’s highest expectations. The show, which appears to be the largest production (in number of episodes) of a children’s entertainment program currently in the world, begins shooting later this summer.

When asked about what she considers to be the biggest factors in the success of a children’s show, Steedman replies, “Obviously, the first requirement is that it is a high quality show. But, in today’s business world, to be truly successful, the concept has to work globally. Everything from the scripts, to the characters, to the music has to resonate with kids around the world. We had an unusual opportunity to test market RAGGS in his mall-marketing appearances, and we saw that he appealed to all different ages, genders, and nationalities of children.” Some of the music and mall activities have already been translated into Spanish.

Steedman says the music is particularly integral to the success of the concept. She partnered with long time pals, Fred and Rebecca Story of Concentrix Music and Sound Design, Inc., of Charlotte, and their musical impresario, Michael McGuiness. The relationship was apparently as fated as the rest of the RAGGS endeavor. Comments Steedman, “Fred, Becky, Mike and their team at Concentrix understood the RAGGS music concept from the start. We all believed that kids’ music did not have to be ‘dumbed down’ to work. And, Concentrix slipped right into the groove and has been hammering out hits ever since. They are brilliant!”

She adds, “When I presented to a large licensing agency in Manhattan they asked, ‘So, who around here or in LA did you use to get that sound?’ I took great pride in telling them it came right out of Charlotte.” Concentrix now holds an exclusive contract for all of the music produced for The RAGGS Kids Club Band and television show and Becky Story has been appointed music director for the series.

 

Leader of the Pack

Needless to say, Steedman’s work is cut out for her. The huge order from Australia moved up deadlines, and the interest generated by the deal is keep her phone ringing and appointment calendar full, not to mention her suitcases packed for frequent travel to Australia. Yet, used to working marathon hours, Steedman is surprisingly undaunted by the task at hand.

“One of the things that has been a real blessing is the support of the dedicated people who have helped us not to misstep. We’ve managed to stay the course during the start-up phase. Now, our charge is to stay focused, stay true to our original vision, and to continue passionately believing in what we have to offer. The incredible team we have assembled makes it possible to move forward in a very responsible manner.”

Steedman adds, “Our ultimate goal is to create a classic that will be enjoyed by kids and appreciated by their parents for the long haul. We are dedicated to protecting the integrity of The RAGGS Kids Club Band, and preventing it from hitting the graveyard of ‘one-hit-wonders.’”

Of course, this is easier said than done. Steedman’s evolving empire includes hectic tour schedules, live theatre, high profile sponsorships, merchandising and production. As a result, her company has to tread very carefully into contracts, copyrights, intellectual property rights, and operations – all on an international level. The company is armed with a stable of loyal and first-rate lawyers and business consultants devoted to keeping the company on-course and The RAGGS Kids Club Band meeting its highest potential.

Right now, it appears the sky’s the limit. After the coup in Australia, several U.S. companies are eyeing RAGGS in true dog-eat-dog fashion. The estimated U.S. debut is expected in late 2006. In the meantime, The RAGGS Kids Club Band will be appearing nationally in venues such as the New York State Fair, Ohio State Fair, Oklahoma State Fair, Tennessee State Fair, and the N.C. State Fair this year as well. According to Steedman, CDs and DVDs are selling as fast as they’re being made, with the all-so important merchandise like stuffed toys and t-shirts soon to follow.

For those eager for a taste of what’s to come, several video specials have been syndicated on major networks. “Red, White and RAGGS,” filmed on location in Washington, D.C., is a patriotic romp being released this month; a Christmas special “Holiday Jam” will air around Christmas; and the flagship video “Pawsuuup!” is also set to air in the fall. While Steedman is cautiously putting products on shelves until the brand is completely built, DVDs and CDs can be found at select Borders and Wal-Marts.

Not surprisingly, critical acclaim has matched RAGGS’ popular reception. The television specials and DVDs have been recognized by major national organizations that review the best in children’s entertainment as well as been nominated for two Regional Emmy awards. Two of the songs are also currently in the top 10 downloads on iTunes and digital downloads are increasing daily.

Dare we say what the creator and her furry friend have to say about the future? How about, “Yip-pee!”

 

Susanne Deitzel is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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