Buyer’s Corner-Al Kahn, Buyer, Chief of Fox Box & Uber-Creator of Kids’ Crazes

Anyone who’s ever met Al Kahn knows he’s a memorable guy. Not only is he a definite personality, he’s the salesman who brought Pokémon to the States. Love him or hate him for that, you gotta give him credit for creating one of the most lucrative kids’ crazes in history. Chief among other Kahn accomplishments was winning the outrageously expensive bid to lease four hours of Saturday morning programming from Fox Broadcasting back in 2002. Although his company, 4Kids Entertainment, shells out more than $25 million in annual fees to Fox, the breakthrough move immediately gave 4Kids licensing and home video groups a direct line to kids and families, not to mention their pocketbooks. Overall revenues for the publicly traded company are up approximately 10% for May 2004 compared to the same reporting period last year due, in no small part, to this end-user link.

Speaking of memorable, I had a meeting with Al during Toy Fair 2003 that perfectly describes his ability to identify a money-making trend in the kids’ market way before anyone else. Veering through all the hubbub, I found Al sitting at a table playing with a prototype of what would become a plug-and-play device used to turn a GameBoy Advance into a mini-TV rerun factory. As I sat down to join him, Al looked up with a devilish grin on his face. He plugged in a mini-cartridge and together we started to watch a Pokémon episode–not a clip, mind you, but a whole episode. As you might expect, my mouth sort of gaped open, and I made a little poofing sound like a fish out of water.

“This,” said Al, as he tapped the miniature screen with the tip of a finger, “this is the future.” And, as usual, he was right.

4Kids Entertainment’s chairman and CEO explains his plan for bringing girl viewers to the FOX BOX and how easy (or perhaps hard … you be the judge) it is to sell him a show in the following Q&A:

Rita Street: Al, what’s your strategy for the future of FOX BOX?

Al Kahn: We believe the name of the game is multi-faceted marketing, and that means reaching kids through merchandising, home video and the Internet, as well as TV. Our target audience is three- to eight-year-olds who still mainly watch TV, but that’s changing. Our core audience is mainly boys, but we’re adding two girls’ shows, continuing this idea of a multi-faceted entertainment concept for kids. So we don’t just start or stop with the TV.

RS: Do you have any new programming strategies?

AK: Our Incredible Crash Dummies, which runs on the FOX BOX as a series of 66x:35 vignettes is a good example of using a network to expose kids to different concepts. Basically they’re public service announcements about wearing seatbelts, but kids love them. It’s just a big fun thing that also appears online. I don’t think Crash Dummies will be a series because the storylines just aren’t there–storylines might actually complicate it too much–but it fits our mission to get kids’ attention in new ways.

RS: Since the FOX BOX is mainly for boys, how do you plan to attract girl viewers?

AK: Getting girls to come to the party is obviously a challenge. We’ve worked hard to market FOX BOX as a boys’ destination so we don’t have large ratings in terms of girls. Our biggest challenge is going to be making girls aware of our new programming. Plus, we have to make sure that the girls’ programming will be enjoyed by boys as well as girls. It just so happens that Winx Club, our girls show, is action adventure even though the protagonists are girls. We also have a variety show called The Menu that will launch June 5 and run throughout the summer. It’s live action with a lot of celebrities, and that will obviously attract a certain number of girls. On June 19, Winx Club launches, airing at 11:30 a.m. after The Menu. We’ll start our season on September 1, with our other new girls’ show, an import called Tokyo Mew Mew, running at 8 a.m., and Winx Club will come on at 8:30. That’s a good time because ABC is giving up an hour on Saturday for Good Morning America, and that programming was predominately a girls’ block.

RS: What is it about Winx Club–a show, I should mention for our readers, that’s produced by the Italian firm, Rainbow Srl–that you think girls will like?

AK: Winx Club incorporates what girls are into now. It’s about looking good and an interest in fashion, about being a princess. We’re not immune to those possibilities. It’s just part of the play pattern they’re interested in now.

RS: At MIPTV I heard from a lot of producers that they’re pitching to buyers much earlier in the development process, even as early as the pure concept stage. How do you feel about that?

AK: I think that producers are smart to look for input early on. If we have a vested interest in the concept, maybe we’ll feel more obliged to take it. Everyone is certainly aware that no one party has all the answers. Maybe collaborations are better than trying to do it all yourself. But frankly, we don’t have any real preference. If something is a big hit in another country, we’ll look at that, or if it just strikes our fancy.

RS: With that said, what sort of content strikes your fancy?

AK: We’re always looking for content that meets our criteria–content that has a life outside of television; that can expand into video games and card games and different activities. We’re looking for shows that aren’t just forms of entertainment but actual lifestyle positions.

RS: And how should our readers go about contacting you?

AK: Call us. We’ll look at it. We have a particular evaluation process we go through, certain production people who have input. As far as deals go, we can own them or co-fund them or buy them. We work with you any way you want. The good news is business is good, and we have cash!

(According to Mr. Kahn’s office, its okay for our readers to pitch to Al Kahn or Norman Grossfeld, president of 4Kids Productions. Contact Al Kahn’s executive assistant, Sara Ann Christman, at 212-758-7666, or Grossfeld’s executive assistant, Natasha Allaire, at 212-590-2100.)