When "Fear Factor" premiered on NBC four seasons ago, some critics and consumer watchdogs declared it "must-flee TV," a lowest-common-denominator reality show that buried its contestants in coffins filled with live snakes and dared them to eat bowls of blended rat.
Since then, "Fear Factor" has defied the odds, becoming a mainstay on the network's Monday-night lineup, with advertising rates approaching a healthy $140,000 per 30-second spot. A recent episode drew 11.7 million viewers and won the time period in the advertiser-coveted 18-49 demographic, as it consistently does.
Unlike the majority of reality shows, "Fear Factor" has a profitable afterlife in syndication, where it airs five days a week, mostly in after-school time periods. It also pulls in strong ratings on FX. For some advertisers, the show, produced by Endemol USA, is a no-brainer. "It's a great place to get young males," said Shari Anne Brill, VP-director of programming at Aegis Group's Carat USA. "That's rare on the networks."
And, owing to its most surprising fans-kids-its burgeoning merchandise program will explode this holiday. Within the next several weeks, some 200 licensed products will flood into stores, including snowboards and scooters, paintball guns, candy and a Game Boy Advance multiplayer game complete with a "virtual vomit meter."
Not since the early days of "The Simpsons"-and "Alf" and "The A-Team" before that-has a prime-time network show spawned such an extensive line of merchandise. Most series, geared to adults, have only a handful of licensing partners in traditional categories such as T-shirts, coffee mugs, posters and key chains. A few reality shows, such as Fox's "American Idol" and The Learning Channel's "Trading Spaces" have moved product, while the real money comes from related DVDs and soundtracks of shows as varied as "Family Guy," "The Sopranos" and "Dawson's Creek."
"So few prime-time shows are translatable to merchandise, but `Fear Factor' has elements going for it that others don't," said Joy Tashjian, president of Joy Tashjian Marketing Group, the licensing consultant for NBC Universal's TV projects. "It seems to have transcended to the level of live-action cartoon."
Until this quarter, there have been fewer than a dozen products based on "Fear Factor," a stunt show in which participants face their fears. The attention-grabbing episodes have featured people eating maggots and bull testicles, while others involve death-defying acts underwater, in the air and between speeding 18-wheelers.
kids and adults
NBC research found that 77% of kid "Fear Factor" fans watch with at least one adult. The series is NBC's top-rated show among kids 6-11, and it's the fourth-rated show with kids in all of network prime time.
That has led to deals with Hasbro, which makes a "Fear Factor" version of its digital device called Video Now that plays the show, and kids' publishing powerhouse Penguin Putnam for a "Fear Factor" Mad Libs board game.
In Fear Factor: Unleashed, the Game Boy Advance game from Hip Interactive's Arush Publishing and Playentertainment, players are assigned a phobia and challenged to make it through several levels of stunts.
Versaly Entertainment is creating teen and young-adult targeted mobile-phone entertainment like ring tones, wallpaper and screen savers.
There's some skepticism that "Fear Factor" can push product, but market conditions could be right for a breakthrough.
"Just because you want to watch it doesn't mean you want to wear it, play with it, interact with it," said Debra Joester, president of the Joester Loria Group licensing consultancy. "At the same time, retail is so hungry for something new. How well this product would sell through and its longevity is another matter."