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LONDON-Being government-owned, the marketing savvy-challenged British Broadcasting Co. has no qualms about putting nature documentaries about moles into prime-time viewing slots.

But that doesn't mean the commercial-free BBC isn't interested in money as evidenced by the licensing program of its BBC Publishing division.

Under John Howson, the 53-year-old head of licensing, licensed products from the network's television characters are being spun off into successes in their own right.

Mr. Howson's latest success is Mr. Blobby, a fat clown in a pink rubber suit who has proven enormously popular in Britain since he first appeared on the "Noel's House Party" televised variety show in the fall 1992 season.

Mr. Howson was quick to see Mr. Blobby's potential, and the result has been retail sales of about $30 million in Blobby-related products since the character's debut. Earning BBC Publishing more than $2.3 million, Mr. Blobby is one of the fastest-growing characters ever for the division.

There are currently more than 250 Mr. Blobby products on sale in Britain, including plush toys, balloons, coffee mugs, candies, kites, books, a video, audio tapes and even a hit single that topped the British charts for three consecutive weeks around Christmas 1993.

Mr. Howson is quick to credit others at BBC Publishing, the new name of what was BBC Enterprises until last May, but he has clearly played a key role. In the early days, he oversaw a long-range licensing strategy designed to prevent the Blobby trend from being a flash in the pan.

He sought to limit the number of licensees to 60 and signed deals with each for terms ranging from one to three years, with the promise of renewal if they do a good job.

The strategy, Mr. Howson says, makes the licensees partners with BBC Publishing and gives them a long-term stake in the continued success of Mr. Blobby.

"The danger, if you have something that looks like a big success, is to over-license it and do too much too quickly," he says.

The Mr. Blobby craze appears to be just beginning. The character was introduced to Americans in June in New York, and plans are underway to expand branded products and programming there as well as throughout Europe.

When Mr. Howson joined BBC Publishing in 1990, he was charged with developing an "an organization that would stack up in the marketplace as being commercial and being strong," he says.

"I hope we have managed to achieve that, and I think we have."

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