Billion-dollar franchise? Fox eyes 'Family' value

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A martini-swilling mutt and a baby bent on world domination are angling to become the next billion-dollar brand franchise for News Corp.

"Family Guy," which had a three-season run on Fox, will launch, again, on the network May 1 as part of an animation-heavy Sunday night. The show, left for dead and resigned to late-night cable, has been revived because of 3.5 million DVD sales, ranking third among all TV shows sold on DVD, and more 18-to-34-year-old male viewers than Leno and Letterman.

"Family Guy" is both unique-in that no other show has ever come back from cancellation for another run on the same network-and indicative of the shifting TV business. The property has shown that there are ways outside the traditional model to find an audience, and cable airings and DVD sales can breathe life back into a show. That's different from the age-old route of a show airing on network TV and, if it's lucky enough to last 100 episodes, the magic number for syndication, only then starting to earn its keep and justify its production costs.

While skeptics point out that its total reach is unlikely to be that of say, "The Simpsons," "Family Guy's" potential strength is its core fan base, teens and young men, who are avid DVD buyers. Those fans also use their disposable income on such add-ons as video games, ring tones and licensed tchotchkes.

THE STANDARD

"The Simpsons" is the gold standard for prime-time animation, produced by "Family Guy" studio 20th Century Fox TV, part of the $21 billion News Corp. empire. The show, centered on Homer, Marge and their dysfunctional-yet-loving brood, has been on Fox for 17 seasons. It's approaching its 350th episode. It's been a ratings and merchandising juggernaut, and analysts say it's brought in $1 billion to News Corp. during the first decade of its life.

Its characters have rubbed shoulders with marketers for years, including a current campaign for Unilever's Dove Styling products that tames Marge Simpson's hairdo.

There's an elite club of billion-dollar brands based on TV shows, and "Family Guy" still has a long way to go to reach the lofty heights of such properties as "The Simpsons" and "SpongeBob SquarePants," with their appeal to kids, adults and everyone in between, said Debra Joester, a licensing expert and president of the Joester Loria Group.

`"Family Guy' could be very successful, but it's a question of scale," Ms. Joester said. "You can't apply the same yardstick to every animated property."

Networks have tried mightily to develop animated shows, realizing the financial potential of series that appeal to broad demographics and that lend themselves to licensed merchandise and other ancillary revenue streams. Most are short lived, and the landscape is littered with the likes of "The PJ's," and "Dilbert." After weak ratings last fall, NBC canceled "Father of the Pride," one of the most expensive TV shows ever at $2 million an episode. Even so, its creators, DreamWorks Animation, are releasing the finished episodes on DVD this spring.

Fox has had the most success with prime-time animation. After "The Simpsons" came "King of the Hill," a strong network and syndicated property, and next up, from "Family Guy" creator Seth MacFarlane, is "American Dad."

The half-hour "Family Guy," a take-no-prisoners comedy, launched with much fanfare on Fox after the Super Bowl in 1999. Its ratings declined after that and, over the next two seasons, it moved around the schedule until a head-to-head thumping by NBC's "Friends" on Thursday nights hastened its cancellation.

Time Warner's Cartoon Network picked it up on a trial basis, airing it in the popular "Adult Swim" block. The fans followed, creating a cult around Peter Griffin and his family, including Stewie the diabolical baby and Brian the talking dog.

"It gave us a chance to stay alive with our core, but also to grow our audience," said David Goodman, executive producer. "Networks give shows so little time to prove themselves, but cable and DVD allowed people to find us."

beating jay, dave

"Family Guy" routinely beat out Jay Leno and David Letterman's late-night network shows in the young male demographics. Then, Fox Home Entertainment released the DVD versions of the shows, which started selling briskly. The 3.5 million units sold persuaded the Fox network to bring the show back.

Fox has ordered 13 new episodes, but the creators are on their way to making close to 50. Even if Fox cancels the show again, the fresh episodes will air on Cartoon Network and its sibling TBS, which are paying undisclosed licensing fees to the studio. 20th Century Fox TV will rely on cable fees and future DVD sales to fuel the project. Once 100 episodes have aired, the producers plan to shop it in the lucrative syndication market.

TV shows still must have a solid creative heart, but production companies are increasingly looking for the financial upside.

It's not possible yet to estimate the value of "Family Guy," said Gary Newman, president of 20th Century Fox TV. As a studio TV producer, "it's all about creating key brands that can go beyond traditional network exploitation," said Mr. Newman. `"Family Guy' is a very valuable consumer-products property. These are few and far between, and when you have it, you must carefully manage it."

The studio produces a few dozen series, but only a handful can extend beyond the screen, Mr. Newman said. Animation is so difficult to nail, but when it happens, "those are perceived as evergreen properties."

The value of "The Simpsons" as ad icons goes back to the early days of the property, when Intel was stamped on Homer's head and Butterfinger used Bart as the center of a campaign.

Fox, hyping "Family Guy" as part of its revamped Sunday night "Animation Domination" lineup, is using a mix of traditional and alternative tactics. Cable and network TV, print, radio and online marketing has been rolling out alongside in-theater spots, fraternity house screenings, spring-break events, independent record- and comic-book store promotions.

"We're trying to make an event out of it," said Chris Carlisle, Fox's exec VP-marketing. "This show was brought back by grassroots movements, and we need to go that route to promote it as well as broaden the base."

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