TORONTO – “Aspirational” is a word that comes up often as Spin Master co-founder Ronnen Harary describes the spunky lead character of his company’s latest preschool TV series “Abby Hatcher.”
Along with original stories, it’s a quality writers strive for because “if the characters are aspirational, there’s a chance that potentially the kids will want to buy some merchandise and some toys.”
That realization helped turned Spin Master’s other preschool series “Paw Patrol” into a licensing and programming juggernaut, and Harary would love a repeat with “Abby Hatcher.”
That’s aspirational, too.
“We’re about play and storytelling,” Harary says during a recent interview at Spin Master’s airy, light-filled downtown offices, where boxed toys greet visitors in the lobby and giant plush Chase and Skye dolls from “Paw Patrol” nestle into auditorium seats overlooking the cafeteria.
“At the end of the day it’s the love of the characters, and potentially how the characters emote and how the characters interact on the show that can translate well in the physical play. That’s the marriage of the two.”
Spin Master’s origins as a toy company in 1994 positioned it well to expand into digital and TV content over the past dozen years, says Harary, crediting that early focus on making toys kids like with the ability to hone a sense of shows kids watch.
And while toys can influence program development, the TV hits boost toy lines, adds Jennifer Dodge, executive vice president of Spin Master Entertainment.
“At Spin Master we have a very special situation,” acknowledges Dodge, who joined Spin Master in 2009, but left briefly in 2015 to head preschool programming at Nickelodeon for two years.
“When you marry the knowledge of what children love from a storytelling and a character standpoint with what they want to play with, it gives you the maximum amount of knowledge you need to go out and build a world of stories that are really going to resonate with children.”
A few blocks from Spin Master’s headquarters, actress Macy Drouin erupts in coos while watching spritely animated creatures bound onscreen at “Abby Hatcher”’s audio production studio, Vapor Music.
The 13-year-old voice lead has seen them countless times but says she genuinely adores the so-called Fuzzlies, who are the trouble-prone pals to her title character.
“Oh, he’s so cute,” Drouin squeals when one of her favourites (they’re all her favourite) appears. “I get goosebumps every time!”
Drouin says she wouldn’t mind voicing her seven-year-old heroine for a few more years.
Even though she’s well beyond the target demographic, Drouin admits she and her friends are also fans of “Paw Patrol,” which they watch with her friend’s little brother.
For those who’ve escaped the grip “Paw Patrol” holds on many households with young children, that show centres on a 10-year-old boy and his pack of rescue dogs, each of whom have special abilities and cool vehicles. They include Marshall the firefighting Dalmatian, Chase the German shepherd police dog and Skye, the cocker spaniel pilot.
In addition to reaching beyond the traditional preschool demographic, Harary says he’s been surprised by data that suggests “Paw Patrol” is equally appealing to boys and girls.
Still, when Rob Hoegee pitched “Abby Hatcher” as a humour-filled series led by a courageous and caring girl, Spin Master saw a chance to add “a girl-oriented” show to their roster, which also includes the boy-led “Rusty Rivets.”
Early data on “Abby Hatcher,” which premiered Jan. 1 in the United States and debuts in Canada on Monday, suggests the series is subverting gender expectations, too, says Harary: “Actually, more boys are watching the show than girls, which is completely fascinating.”
Again, he credits that to the fact Abby “does really interesting, cool things” and is “aspirational.”
“We’re not a research-heavy company. We’re more of an art, intuitive-based company,” adds Harary.
“Abby Hatcher” has been in development for close to four years to nail down the writing, cast, animation, music and direction.
“It’s not just like, ‘Oh, they kind of look like a toy so then they’re going to work,’” he says, agreeing that the Fuzzlies seem like obvious toys. “It’s much deeper, it’s much more complex.”
But of course, “Abby”-themed toys are on the horizon. Harary says plushies will likely land at the end of the year, and more products are on deck for 2020.
Harary is also bullish on the recent re-launch of the Bakugan toy line and TV show, and continued growth for “Paw Patrol,” which hits TV Tokyo in April.
“It’s the first North American preschool show to come to Japan in over 10 years,” he boasts of the series, seen in Canada on Netflix and the provincial broadcasters TVO, B.C.’s Knowledge, City Saskatchewan, and Tele-Quebec.
Dodge touts Spin Master’s holistic approach to kids entertainment as unique but also necessary for a generation of digital natives whose play patterns blur regularly with their computer, mobile and TV screen habits.
“Today, our audience really doesn’t differentiate between physical product and what they have on the screen. If you love a character and a world, you want to experience it on every level and that could be passively by watching a story on television or on your iPad,” she says.
“It could be more active by using an app and exploring that world digitally. Or it could be more physically where you’re building out that play yourself and taking the power in your own hands.”
“Abby Hatcher,” premieres Monday on TVO and Knowledge.