Walking a tightrope

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If he were alive today, legendary showman P.T. Barnum might have to amend the infamous quote to "There's a competitor born every minute."

To appeal to the iPod generation and their parents, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus is doing away with its iconic three rings. Performances will have a storyline for the first time and there are new multimedia elements, urban-flavored music, the first female ringmaster and pre-show activities aimed at showing value-for-dollar-spent.

It's all part of an image buffing from Feld Entertainment, which recently hired its first outside publicity firm, Hill & Knowlton, and forged a deal with TV producer Mark Wolpert to develop scripted and reality shows based on Ringling Bros.

Privately held Feld does not release attendance figures or revenue, and executives say the current revamp is not because audiences have declined. Billboard magazine reported that Feld had the two top-grossing family shows in the U.S. in 2004 with Disney on Ice and Ringling Bros. The Ringling Bros. circus grossed about $30.5 million, with 1.7 million people attending the shows, according to Billboard.

"We want to show that this isn't your grandfather's circus," said Julie Robertson, Feld's senior VP-marketing.

Kenneth Feld, CEO, has put his 27-year-old daughter, Nicole, in charge of the circus' re-engineering. Ms. Feld hired Broadway and Hollywood veterans with no circus experience to help re-jigger the show.

The new show, which cost $15 million to mount, includes hip-hop-style music and a giant video screen that will let audiences see up-close angles of the performances. Former "American Idol" finalist Jennifer Fuentes acts as a singing ringmaster. A pre-show invites the audience to come an hour before the event to meet performers, see the sets and participate in fitness exercises.

Though Ringling Bros. is iconic, it needs a radical update so it's not perceived as a relic of a different era, said Janet Davis, a University of Texas professor and circus expert who wrote "The Circus Age: Culture and Society under the American Big Top."

Marketing had to keep pace as well. Feld has increased its ad spending around the new show anywhere from 5% to 25%, depending on the market. The new ad campaign, from Red Tettemer, Philadelphia, has urban-flavored music amid quick-cut images of circus performers.

The mass awareness of the Ringling Bros. brand proved to be "its biggest asset and its worst problem," said Steve Red, the ad agency's president-chief creative officer. "The challenge is to show it brand new without leaving out the traditional circus icons."

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