FIT FOR PURPOSE
Mar 29th 2007
From The Economist print edition
“Healthy” television for children sounds crazy. But Magnus Scheving, alias Sportacus, has done very well from it
TODDLERS know Magnus Scheving, the boss of LazyTown Entertainment, as Sportacus. The hero of “LazyTown”, a children's television programme that promotes healthy lifestyles, Sportacus lives in an airship, performs somersaults at the drop of a hat and spends his time thwarting the plans of the town's lazy-minded villain, Robbie Rotten. The role fits Mr Scheving as snugly as Sportacus's blue lycra suit. He has built a colourful business driven by his own cartoonish levels of energy. “I wasn't made to sit at a desk,” he says, wriggling in his chair and constantly jumping up to scribble on a whiteboard, grab another piece of fruit or emphasise a point. Restlessness should not be confused with a lack of focus. In his 20s, Mr Scheving and a friend challenged each other to succeed at a sport neither knew anything about. Mr Scheving wound up with competitive aerobics, became European champion twice and finished second in the world. (He says his friend had to console himself with the crown of Icelandic snooker champion.)
Mr Scheving applies the same intensity to LazyTown. Now on air in more than 100 countries, the programme has won chart-topping ratings among pre-school viewers and a clutch of industry awards since making its debut in America in 2004. Success has been the result of careful planning. Mr Scheving spent more than a decade building the brand in Iceland before moving overseas. The television programme may have established LazyTown internationally but is only one part, albeit a critical one, of the overall franchise. “LazyTown is not a TV property but a lifestyle brand for children,” says Mr Scheving, who peppers his conversation with references to Walt Disney and Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets. A whiteboard in his office maps out a dizzying month-by-month plan of activities and product launches stretching to the end of 2011.
Mr Scheving first turned movement into money as a five-year-old, carrying messages in the Icelandic town where he grew up to people who did not own a phone. He began his working life as a carpenter, and he personally fitted out the studio on the outskirts of Reykjavik where “LazyTown” is filmed. In his spare time he worked as a fitness instructor and also built up a thriving sideline as a motivational speaker on health and fitness. He quickly realised that there were plenty of healthy role models for adults—but none for children.
The LazyTown characters first appeared in a book in 1991. Further books and musicals followed, all penned by the hyperactive Mr Scheving himself. Spin-off activities have included the LazyTown Economy, a month-long campaign in which Icelandic children used their savings to buy vouchers that could be traded for a range of healthy products. (Vegetable consumption went up by 12.5% during the promotion.) Mr Scheving says he had his eye on international expansion from the start but bided his time for three reasons. First, close-knit Iceland provided the ideal test of brand integrity because “people know where you live”. Second, he wanted to test the LazyTown concept on two generations of pre-schoolers, not just one. Third, he wanted to do some proper homework on the television industry.
His research indicated that successful children's shows have a number of attributes. Timelessness is one. Mr Scheving, who confesses to a “mania for detail”, designed the costumes and sets for “LazyTown” so that they cannot be dated. For similar reasons, the show's theme song, which reached number four in the British singles chart last December, was given an untranslatable title (“Bing Bang”) to smooth internationalisation. A distinctive style is also important. The vibrant mixture of computer-generated imagery, puppets and live action in “LazyTown” is instantly recognisable. It is expensive, too: each 24-minute episode costs $800,000 to make, an unprecedented amount for a children's television programme ($200,000 is closer to the norm). This makes it even more important to have a full range of licensing and merchandising opportunities to exploit. Toys, costumes and books already bear the LazyTown name in many countries. Live tours have been franchised in Britain and Latin America. Talks are under way with Nintendo to create a video game for its Wii console, which features a motion-sensitive controller. Internet projects are also being mulled.
Licensing is one of two potentially sensitive areas for the LazyTown brand. There have already been some mutterings in Iceland about over-commercialisation. “We could have filled LazyTown products with advertising, but we haven't,” retorts a somewhat defensive Mr Scheving, who adds that the company could easily make much more money by skimping on the quality of the TV programme. But he admits that choosing the right products can be difficult, especially in food. Some decisions are easier than others. The company quickly turned down the chance to endorse a range of healthy crisps, for instance. Exercise equipment is also out of bounds—Mr Scheving is keen for “LazyTown” not to be labelled explicitly as a health or fitness show.
The other sensitive point is the obvious irony of a TV programme encouraging children to be healthier and more active. Surely they should start by switching off the box? Mr Scheving tries to brave it out. It is a fact that children watch television, he says—and TV has its place, in moderation. Faced with the growing problem of child obesity, governments are grateful for any help they can get in persuading youngsters to spend less time on the sofa. Iceland's health ministry has lauded LazyTown's impact, and Mr Scheving won the Nordic Public Health prize in 2004. The British government is now in talks with the firm over a joint campaign. At 42, Mr Scheving cannot play Sportacus for ever, but he is optimistic about the future. “Health is never going to go out of fashion,” he says, reaching for more fruit.