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The Wiggles Industrial Complex: From band to brand, these Australians mean business. Babble's Infant Industry.

Infant Industry: The Wiggles Industrial Complex

From band to brand, these Australians mean business. by Greg Allen

February 14, 2007

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With their cheesy dance moves and insipid lyrics (“Fruit salad, yummy, yummy fruit salad / Yummy, yummy yummy, yummy, yummy, yummy, fruit salad”), the Wiggles’ success has always baffled me. Even with an earworm like “Hot Potato” ringing through my skull, I can tell that my two-year-old daughter loves them, just as my then-three-year-old niece loved them in 2002. But as I look from the ridiculously low production values to the obscenely high numbers (seventeen million CDs sold last year!), I can’t help but wonder: are the Wiggles a giant racket?

The band’s official story is one of talent, hard work and magic. Four ex-musicians met while studying to become preschool teachers and formed the group, in which each color-coded character is defined by what he likes best (food, sleep, magic, music). They now perform more than 200 live shows a year with the same wholesome costumed characters they first introduced years ago in Sydney daycare centers: Captain Feathersword, Dorothy the Dinosaur, Wags the Dog and Henry the Octopus. Paul Field, the group’s manager (and blue Wiggle Anthony’s brother) told an Australian paper that The Wiggles really took off in America right after September 11th, when the group decided not to cancel their New York concert dates.

The reality is a little more complex – and far more corporate. The Wiggles were already on their way by 2001, thanks to the distribution deal they signed in 1998 when they were in Texas performing at Six Flags. That’s where they were spotted by executives of Lyrick Studios, the creators of that annoying kiddie enterprise of an earlier generation, Barney. Within three years, the Wiggles were opening for Barney’s live show. Lyrick included a Wiggles preview on millions of Barney tapes and DVDs. When Lyrick (which then also controlled Veggie Tales) was acquired by the UK studio/distributor HIT Entertainment (which owned Bob the Builder and half a dozen other properties), the company became the third largest distributor of children’s entertainment after Disney and Nickelodeon. The Wiggles made preschool primetime when The Disney Channel added them to the morning lineup in 2002.

And it wasn’t the Wiggles’ first rodeo. They’ve had a TV show since the early days, when they appeared on ABC, the Australian public network. Websites like Daddy Otter have documented the group’s changes from season to season. And the transformation has been far more substantial than the graying of Anthony’s hair. The first two seasons, shot in 1998 and 1999, were full of long skits featuring relatively complex narratives and characters. The Wiggles themselves were on camera almost the whole time. The script was full of jokes clearly meant to go over kids’ heads, punctuated by Australianisms like, “Beauty, mate!”

By Season Two, the Wiggles were becoming more generic, thanks in part to computer animation. Season Three, shot in 2002, when Disney started airing the series, was completely different. Called “Lights, Camera, Action!”, it was framed by a self-referential, Larry Sanders-like set. There were songs about mixing boards and control rooms, and a pretend stage crew of children. The long skits were gone, replaced by a quick series of songs and bits that emphasized each character’s bullet point (“Wake up, Jeff!”).

By Season Four, shot in 2005, ancillary characters like the Little Wiggles had moved to the fore. Unless it was a concert video, there were hardly any actual Wiggles singing songs at all. (The real Wiggles were on tour. As most bands with distribution deals come to realize, touring is the best way to make money – and to keep most of the money you make.)

Infant Industry: The Wiggles Industrial Complex

From band to brand, these Australians mean business. by Greg Allen

February 14, 2007

0

The driving force behind the show’s evolution is not just creative, but strategic: to turn the show into a platform for other businesses within Wiggles, Ltd. Now the group is expanding its global reach through sing-alike franchises in Taiwan, Latin America, India, and soon, China. The Wiggles’ latest objective – transforming four buddies in turtlenecks into a portfolio of characters and properties capable of sustaining an international brand – will be tested by yellow Wiggle Greg Page’s recent retirement. Will fans accept Sam as the new yellow Wiggle? Will the band translate to East Asia? And exactly how high are the stakes?

It’s been widely reported that the Wiggles are Australia’s highest-paid performers since 2004, bringing home $45-50 million per year in Australian dollars. That translates to $34 million U.S., 70% of which ($23 million) is reported to come from the U.S. If concert promoters take $5 million, just over half the box office, that means the remaining $18 million comes from royalties on licensed merchandise and toys, DVD and CD sales and TV distribution fees. Good sales didn’t necessarily mean windfall profits.

And yet only two of the Wiggles’ albums have charted in the U.S. In 2003, “Yummy Yummy” was #21 on Billboard‘s Heatseekers chart for debut acts; it graduated to #17 on the Independent Albums chart for 2004. And good sales didn’t necessarily mean windfall profits. The album was launched through a promotion with Dannon, meaning it sold for just $5 (plus a yogurt lid). Other Wiggles titles retail for $10-12, well below the adult music industry’s $17 standard. The Wiggles’ take: maybe $3-4 million each year on three million unit sales. Licensed products like the Wiggles Musical Guitar could yield a buck apiece for the group. Say they get $100,000 per episode for the TV show (a high guess based on high six-figure cable syndication deals for hit shows like Sex and The City); that might bring in $5 million.

Based on these numbers, it seems that the concerts, and the high-margin merchandise sold there, remain the Wiggles’ most important revenue source. In other words, the band still must hit the road to make a living, and to pay off all involved. The Wiggles Touring Pty, Ltd., employs more than 100 people in Australia alone to produce their content and manage their deals. That’s a big nut to cover.

With the Wiggles’ audience turning over every three-to-five years, the yellow Wiggle shuffle should have little or no impact on the group’s success. Soon, it may not even matter if any of the original members stay on, as the band takes its branding to the next level. Mandarin-speaking Wiggles debuted in Taiwan last year. Similar plans are underway for a Japanese and Latin American franchise. Paul Field just announced that two new series featuring locally cast Wiggles would begin in India. The first “coffee-coloured Captain Feathersword” will speak Tamil. (Hindi’s next.) In recent interviews, the group emphasizes the mainland Chinese market as the holy Wiggle grail.

Will it work in the long run? There’s not much of a precedent for sustained success. The Veggie Tales exploded into a mass market phenomenon in the mid ’90s, but by 2001, the company was bankrupt, victim to runaway film-production costs and a debilitating legal battle with its distributor, Lyrick Studios. Similarly, Henson Studios went on a valuation roller coaster after Jim Henson’s death. Sold by his heirs for $600 million, it was later broken up, and parts were sold for pennies on the dollar. Disney bought up most of it. Surely the Wiggles can’t dominate the international children’s market forever. At least, that thought sustains me during the shrill choruses of “Fruit Salad.”

Article Posted 9 years Ago
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