It will be like Beatlemania for 2-to-5-year-olds when the BBC's pre-school TV program "Teletubbies" debuts in the U.S. on the Public Broadcasting Service in April.
A single by England's new Fab Four -- Po, Laa-Laa, Dipsy and Tinky Winky -- rocketed to No. 1 on the U.K. pop chart the first week it went on sale in early December. And Teletubbies plush toys were top sellers here during the holidays, with rationing the likes of which hadn't been seen since World War II.
The Teletubbies are even moving into the supermarket: The U.K. dairy group Unigate is launching TubbyCustard under its St. Ivel brand in March. The pink, custard-style yogurt is ready-to-eat, and inspired by what the characters eat on the show.
The U.S. invasion of the Teletubbies -- bizarre hybrids of chubby toddlers, aliens and teddy bears, with TV sets for tummies -- is expected to be no less frenzied.
Hasbro will ship a limited line of Teletubbies products in the U.S. in late spring, before introducing a full range of entries in the fall. The line will include bath toys, figures, games, soft toys and puzzles.
"We think it has terrific potential," said Gary Serby, a Hasbro spokesman. "Look at the response around the world. Teletubbies are about a celebration of fun, imagination and play, and those things have universal appeal."
Frank Reysen, editor of industry trade magazine Playthings, said the involvement of "Hasbro as its toy licensee gives the property a head start to begin with. Hasbro knows how to market and promote a license."
He also said "Teletubbies" benefits from a respected U.S. licenser, Itsy Bitsy Entertainment, and a valuable media platform in PBS.
PBS SETS RINEY ADS
"The property will get a rub-off effect by being on PBS. What's the opposite of guilt by association? Whatever you call that, that's what PBS will give `Teletubbies,' " Mr. Reysen said.
The TV show itself will be promoted beginning in April with a print and outdoor ad campaign via Hal Riney & Partners, San Francisco. TV advertising also may be used.
"[We will] probably spend $1 million" on advertising and promotion said Ken Viselman, president-CEO of Itsy Bitsy Entertainment.
BREAKING NEW GROUND
The TV show, introduced in the U.K. last March, breaks new ground because it's designed so that children as young as 18 months will watch.
It's hard to describe the effect the show and its characters have had to date; suffice it to say "Teletubbies" has become a secret weapon for parents who want their 2-year-olds to sit still.
Toddlers can follow what's happening because the Teletubbies speak in baby-talk ("eh-oh" for "hello"), and the program uses seemingly endless repetition.
Anne Wood, founder of Ragdoll Productions, created "Teletubbies" after observing how focus groups of nursery children learn to talk, play and watch TV.
The Teletubbies and their embryonic language should translate well for U.S. toddlers. Each episode features a segment where the Teletubbies watch films on their TV-set tummies of real children going to the beach or playing games. In the U.S., those films will be replaced by ones featuring U.S. children.
Each episode is accompanied by narration of the Teletubbies, activities; the narrators of the U.S. version also will be American. The British actors inside the garish Teletubbies costumes will re-dub their limited lines, although accents shouldn't be a problem for the baby-talk used by the characters.
"For a hit, you need a property that children really like, parents approve of and that retailers will support, plus a little innovation," Mr. Viselman said. " `Teletubbies' is innovative because it was created for a new age group and it's running on PBS, which is like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval."
Teletubbies' main challenge in the U.S. will be the competition. Mr. Reysen estimates that entertainment licensing accounts for half of the products in the U.S. toy industry.
`TOUGH MARKET TO CRACK'
"It's a crowded marketplace that consists of a lot of well-known properties that get a lot of media exposure. It's a tough market to crack," he said.
But he believes Teletubbies should be able to bridge the cultural barrier, perhaps better than properties that have originated in the Far East, which has exported some cash-cow kids properties in recent years, from Tamagotchi virtual pets to Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.
The U.S. Teletubbies toy blitz will hit its stride next summer. In a rather unusual plan, different retailers will stock different toys, Mr. Viselman said.
At the high end, FAO Schwarz and Bloomingdale's will carry some Teletubbie toys in the $15 to $30 range. J.C. Penney Co. and Toys "R" Us will carry other toys, at $10 to $20.
In addition to the U.S., public and commercial broadcasters in Denmark, Estonia, Israel, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Portugal, Singapore and South Africa have been licensed to carry the show.
"It's a truly global property. We are starting with a global product because it appeals to children and things that appeal to children are universal," said Tracey Hinchliffe, head of children's marketing at BBC Worldwide, which is responsible for licensing the Teletubbies everywhere except in the Americas.
The BBC, a public broadcaster that doesn't carry advertising, had no other choice but to develop a program that could recoup its investment through international licensing and merchandise sales.
The four Teletubbies are filmed on the 6 acres of Teletubbyland, a life-size film set near Stratford-upon-Avon. The initial program budget was $13 million, including landscaping the hills of Teletubbyland and building the Tubbytronic Superdome.
"For the BBC to take such a level of risk of investment required [that] the program had to generate sales," Ms. Hinchliffe said, noting the broadcaster is committed to churning out 260 half-hour "Teletubbies" programs over the next three years.
Contributing: Chuck Ross, Jeff Jensen.