What do ‘Peppa Pig’ and ‘Game of Thrones’ have in common?
Entertainment companies have much to lose when their biggest hits become too big to fail
Popular porcine Peppa Pig: but when a bona fide money-spinner is finally shoved off the production line, it is far from guaranteed that replacements will prove equally lucrative. Photograph: Channel 5/PA Wire
Peppa Pig and Game of Thrones have much in common. Granted there is less eye-gouging in Peppa Pig and more religion in Game of Thrones, but both are media franchises worth billions and neither are going anywhere anytime soon. Not if their parents have their say.
First, an explainer on Peppa Pig for the uninitiated. It’s a preschool series oink about a family of pigs oink made by London-based animation studio Astley Baker Davies oink, which in 2015 became 70 per cent owned by Entertainment One, a Canadian film and television group listed on the London Stock Exchange. Oink.
This last fact means Peppa is a regular porcine star of stock market reports otherwise concerned with more sober realities like benchmark indices, government bonds and Donald Trump.
Last year, Peppa pulled in more than $1.1 billion in retail sales and was the subject of more than 500 new and renewed broadcast and licensing agreements for Entertainment One. Peppa is hot news. She is popular in China, Russia and Brazil. She is too big to fail.
This is why Entertainment One has announced it is making 117 new episodes of the cartoon to “nurture the long-term success” of Peppa. This will take the episode tally to 381, which is more than enough to see Peppa’s most ardent fans through from dazed fascination to big-kid jadedness.
Investors or would-be investors in Entertainment One now have a four-year pipeline of new Peppa episodes to consider when deciding to buy, sell or hold. At some point, it will stop making sense to make more.
But what happens after the inevitable Peppa peak? For media and entertainment companies, their biggest success stories can soon start to resemble one of George RR Martin’s Valyrian steel swords: deadly and double-edged.
Ignore those companies that talk about algorithms – there is very little science at play in the cultural industries. When a bona fide money-spinner is finally shoved off the production line, it is far from guaranteed that replacements will prove equally lucrative. As a result, the temptation is to ignore the law of diminishing returns and instead focus on squeezing every last drop of financial life out of a media property, long after its relevance and creative energy has expired.
This brings us to Game of Thrones. The series is closer to the end than it is to the beginning, which signals a possible revenue hiccup down the line for its maker, Time Warner-owned HBO. After this summer’s seven-episode run, there’s only 2018’s season eight left to go.
While HBO has more irons in the fire than the Iron Throne saga, Game of Thrones is by far its biggest show. Take away the dollars generated by the fantasy epic filmed in Belfast’s Titanic Studios and not only would Time Warner’s stock sink, but AT&T’s bid to buy Time Warner would look overpriced.
So for some time now, investors and viewers alike have been asking the question “where is HBO’s next Game of Thrones?” It turns out the most likely answer is Game of Thrones spin-off number one, Game of Thrones spin-off number two and maybe more. Some five separate pilots are in development. Even if they don’t all go to series, this is some Marvel-level milking. The fansites are punch-drunk.
It’s a dilemma that most companies would love to have, of course. When should you take steps to wean yourself off the cash cow and start nurturing something new?
Case studies abound, but may be little help. Broadcaster Channel 4 didn’t completely enjoy the phenomenon that was Big Brother, which at one point accounted for a quarter of its advertising revenues, but had long ceased to be “on brand” for the public service broadcaster. Luckily, it had the luxury of having no shareholders and could cut the cord.
A more pertinent example may come from independent publishing house Bloomsbury. It owes its fortunes to JK Rowling, but shareholders used to get twitchy in the financial years when Bloomsbury had no new Harry Potter book to magic up midnight bookshop-event hype.
Sooner or later, the spell will be broken, the ice will melt and the pigs will oink their last. It will literally be back to the drawing board. Anyone can be lucky enough to have a hit. When it comes to proving both business and creative prowess, it is delivering the follow-up that is often the true test.