The Hub, Hasbro and Shezow

logo-hub.png

The LA Times ran an article on My 28th by Joe Flint that’s pretty much all about The Hub; well The Hub and parent company Hasbro….and the former’s latest show thrown in for good measure. We’ll get to Shezow in a minute, but what the article brought up in a more important way, was the nature of the relationship between the network and Hasbro. Of all the kids’ networks, only the Hub is owned by a parent that also produces toys, and that makes things extra tricky.

The Network

The Hub is a youngster and has faced an uphill battle since it launched:

Launched in October 2010, the Hub has barely registered a blip in the highly competitive kids’ TV marketplace. It has a few minor successes including “My Little Pony Friendship Is Magic” and “Transformers,” but overall its ratings are tiny. Among kids 2 to 11, the Hub’s primary target, it averages 56,000 viewers a day, according to Nielsen. Disney and Nickelodeon each average 934,000 kids in that group.

Finding a runaway success in My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, the network has worked to expand it’s offerings of original content and Shezow is simply the latest in that effort.

So far so good, right? I mean, Rome wasn’t built in a day and the fact that the Hub has managed to get going with a small but fairly devoted following suggests that it’s continued growth is secured. However, there is the small matter of the owner of the entire operations and how it interacts with the network and studio.

Hasbro

The giant that is Hasbro was, for a long time, simply a manufacturer of toys, both licensed and original. The Hub is their first real foray into entertainment and so far, has spent $450 million between acquisition and investment in the Hub and its associated production facility, Hasbro Studios. The former has yet to turn a profit, but losses are narrowing.

Given this level of investment, Hasbro has exerted higher than normal levels of control over the Hub. This is where things get really intriguing for a number of reasons. Chief among them is that you have an established company moving into an industry that they are sort of familiar with but have never got their hands really dirty. They’ve invested a lot of money and some people have their necks on the line.

One would naturally expect that some experienced hands would be hired and given the freedom to do what they do best: develop great content. Well, that’s sort of been the case.

Lauren Faust left My Little Pony for conflicting reasons depending on who you ask, but interference from Hasbro executives appears quite commonly in rumours. That’s not all though. The LA Times article notes that Hasbro controlled the Hub’s own website before relenting.

Both of these play into the larger role that Hasbro seems to have: they want a top-down approach to content.

Back in the 1980s, there was a marvelous/terrible regime whereby animated shows were driven by toys. That is, existing toy lines were shoehorned into an animated half hour and sold to kids as a way to boost toy sales. Fair enough. But then Nickelodeon discovered that if you let animators do their thing, they could completely obliterate the competition with original content! SpongeBob Squarepants is the ultimate and best example of this: a creator-driven show that has sold billions of dollars worth of merchandise. In other words: the show drove toy sales, not the other way around.

Unfortunately, Hasbro doesn’t see things this way, and instead of using the bottom-up approach to content and merchandise, has decided to go in the opposite direction by dictating which content the Hub is permitted to make and broadcast, all in the name of synergy:

Several former Hub and Hasbro executives, who declined to speak publicly because of the sensitivity of the matter, charge that shows that performed well for the Hub but weren’t in line with Hasbro’s toy sales objectives have been canceled or had their episode orders reduced.

Those shows include the cartoon “G.I. Joe Renegades” and “Family Game Night,” a program in which kids and parents play life-sized versions of Hasbro games. The former was canceled because Hasbro did not have a doll that went with the show on the shelves of stores, these people said. The latter had its episode order cut when board games became less of a Hasbro priority.

Such claims led to the inevitable denials:

Hasbro President and Chief Executive Brian Goldner denied those assertions, saying programming decisions are “up to Margaret and the team.” Loesch said those moves were made for “business and budget considerations” and not because of pressure from Hasbro.

“They do not tell us how to run the business,” Loesch said. “They of course share with me which of the properties they think would tie in best with their strategy, which is a win-win for us.”

All I can say is, yeah right. CoughEquestriaGirlscough

When companies pour nearly half a billion dollars into something, it is impossible for them not to meddle on some level. Besides, if they can, well, bump their quarterly numbers up by 0.005% if they tell the network to do this or that, guess what? They will do it!

We haven’t even discussed how Hasbro bans ads for rival toy companies’ products from the Hub, but you should be able to figure that one out for yourself. If it isn’t evidence of overzealous control, I don’t know what is. At least Disney sidesteps the issue completely by not running any ads at all.

All this makes it all the more interesting as to how Shezow came to get picked up.

Shezow

This Australian/Canadian show has already been broadcast in both countries with success and will come to the Hub on June 1st, 2013. It revolves around a 12 year old boy, Guy, who basically turns into a superhero. So far so normal, right? Well the twist is that turning him into a superhero also turns him into a girl makes him feminine in appearance:

Via: The Hub
Via: The Hub

This twist is something new for an animated kids show and while it raises some very good points about genderisation, kids and socially-mandated gender norms (which is definitely a topic for another post), it also doesn’t appear to fit in with Hasbro’s ‘plan’ at all.

So, will it survive? That’s the simplest question, but furthermore, why doesn’t Hasbro adapt the merchandise to the content instead of the other way around? Is it because it retains the entrenched ways of creating merchandise that have been part and parcel of toys since the dawn of television? Or is it because the company really believes that it can do better than the other networks that have all embraced creator-driven shows?

We’ll have to wait and see.

My Little Pony Trademark Dispute Shocker

Disclaimer: I am not a Brony.
Disclaimer: I am not a Brony.

The latest incarnation of My Little Pony has been worthy of plenty of discussion since its debut. The quality is excellent, the artists behind it are superb and its fans are devoted at a level most marketers can only fantasize about. Thankfully, the network that broadcasts the show, The Hub, has been smart enough to realise this and have allowed the fan community to grow freely, sometimes offering a little fertiliser of their own to give it a helping hand. I’ve discussed the whole phenomenon numerous times too, praising the progressive approach shown by the network to the entire affair.

However, a dark cloud has begun to cast its shadow over Equestria. I was expecting to discuss just one example, but this morning a second, and much more vicious example of a My Little Pony trademark dispute came to light. Both concern fans and both concern, not the Hub, but its parent company, Hasbro.

The Game

MLP online screenshot
MLP online screenshot

Via: Equestria Gaming

The first example to come to light (via Techdirt) is the fan-made online game MLP: Online. It was an entirely independent exercise and the developers apparently spent over a year and a half creating it before releasing the first episode just there in October.

Unfortunately, all the effort appears to have been in vain as Hasbro’s lawyers pounced on the unofficial game, going after it for both copyright and trademark infringement:

Shortly after that–exactly 4 weeks prior to now–we received a complaint about copyright and trademark infringement. We initially dismissed this it was most likely submitted by some trolls, as they could be submitted anonymously by anyone through our CDN. However, we continued to look into it, and by the following Monday, found it to be very real.

The developers admit that they weren’t exactly in the clear:

Hasbro is not to be blamed here. As per U.S. Trademark law, as soon as an infringement comes to light, they are obligated to defend the trademark, or they will lose it. They had no choice in the matter, regardless of what they thought of the project or how it benefited them.

However it appears that Hasbro was having none of it, even though there was a willingness on the developer’s side to work with them:

The matter was quite strict: there was little that we could do to work around it. We removed the download link and development was suspended. Discussions continued through the month, but it came down to one fact: MLP:Online had come to an end.

Now there are plenty of official MLP games out there, but the real issue here is whether or not they cater to the fans. A cursory glance of the Hasbro website raises questions about whether it caters to the brony crowd (hint: not if you’re over 10 or a boy). So it would seem natural that someone somewhere would create a game that does cater to the older crowd. MLP: Online appeared to fit that bill. Sadly, Hasbro, while legally right to defend their trademarks, chose the ‘nuclear’ option that will do nothing to foster the fan community.

The Plush Artist

Tomopop_SillyFillyConWhiteDove6-620x

Via: Tomopop

The other, and far more intriguing story, popped up today and concerns Sherry Bourlan. Sherry is a MLP fan as well as an expert at creating plush toys (check out this very thorough post featuring her recent appearance at the Silly Filly Con in Kansas City). Her’s are not the cheapo kind though, they are expertly crafted and sold for a hefty price (this one sold for over $1,300 and has surely risen in value since). Ms. Bourlan was served with a notice of trademark infringement for selling her replica ponies through eBay with which she promptly complied (her store is empty at the time of writing)

What makes this case fascinating is that it is purely a trademark case (no copyright is involved) and because it centers around the concept of trademark known as ‘dilution‘, where an unofficial product may threaten an official product or cause confusion in the mind of the consumer.

In this instance, although Bourlan operated independently, there doesn’t appear to be any real dilution of a competing Hasbro product or even the My Little Pony trademark. Her products were of stunningly high quality and in any case, Hasbro doesn’t even make a competing plush toy!

So are they right to send a cease and desist? Legally, yes, but on the shooting-yourself-in-the-foot scale, this scores s blunderbuss. The company could so easily have come to an agreement with Bourlan for either a small or negligible -cost license and allow her to continue making her fantastic plushes. The My Little Pony brand is hardly being harmed by these stunning creations although they do show up Hasbro’s shortcomings as a brand; they could never hope to charge that much for a plush.

The Moral

The moral of both stories is that large corporations can be incredibly short-sighted when it comes to the little people who actually support them. As noted at the top, the actual studio and network (The Hub) has nothing to do with both cases, a not entirely surprising state of affairs given their known stance on the show’s fans.

The parent corporation, Hasbro, on the other hand, sees things in a different light; towing the line of many similar behemoths by simply assuming that any unofficial activity is bad activity that needs to be put down. Little do they know that they are only hurting themselves. Especially so with the plushes. Hasbro doesn’t target adults but Ms. Bourlan clearly does. It’s a market they have actively neglected and are highly unlikely to get into anytime soon, so there’s no skin off their nose at the end of the day. The game is a similar matter and by actively stating that they are ignoring older fans (who have money!), the company is only fooling themselves.

Personally, if I were head of Hasbro, I would be taking a close look at the activity of my legal affairs department and whether or not they are justifying their activities. Defending trademarks is one thing, but you do not need to annihilate to win. Heck, even Disney back in the day found it much more agreeable to get a license out of infringers than to shut them down. They won by coming into the legal fold and Disney won because he sold more products that paid royalties!