If you have not already heard of LazyTown, the new kids’ TV series, then the chances are you will in the not too distant future. Because the TV show is already taking the US by storm. In fact, within ten days of its launch in August it was rated as the number one programme for pre-school kids in America.
The Hollywood Reporter enthused, “LazyTown is a good idea in an even better package. Mixing live action, puppets and animation, the series fights the big fight in trying to punch out potato couch kids who get little exercise, if any. It’s great fun for the young set, not to mention educational, maybe even life changing.”
You could say the star of the show, Sportacus, has gone from zero to superhero in just a few days.
Now the show has just launched in Canada on YTV and Germany looks set to follow. The UK could be next on the list.
But what makes the story all the more remarkable is that LazyTown is not the product of some Hollywood studio.
It is being made by the man who conceived it, Magnus Scheving, at LazyTown Studios in Iceland.
Yes, Iceland. Population 280,000. The whole country is about the same size as Aberdeen or Sheffield.
Recently, he invited delegates on The Drum and Adline’s Iceland Forum to tour his studio on the outskirts of Reykjavik. His presentation was like a high-energy aerobics workout – both literally and metaphorically.
Not surprisingly, for Scheving is a two-time European aerobics champion, and took a silver medal at the World Championships.
It was his interest in fitness, as well as entertaining children and motivating them to a healthy lifestyle, that inspired the LazyTown idea. It started with a range of Icelandic books. And now the first series of his show – which sold to Nickelodeon – represented an investment of $17m.
“To sell anything, there needs to be a need,” he told Forum delegates. “Twelve years ago I saw that obesity was going to be a big problem – that this generation was the first that could die before their parents.
“Today 300,000 people die in the US because of obesity – it’s a bigger killer than smoking.
“‘Can we change this?’ was the question I asked. But back then, when I spoke to people they were not interested. Parents were not interested. And kids think they are going to live for ever in any case.
“So a direct health message – through advertising, for instance, is seen as boring.
“But I looked at this issue and saw there was no healthy role model for kids. The closest thing was Popeye and even he smokes and beats people up.
“So the idea was to create a superhero for kids. But in order to do this it was really important to do your homework.”
By this time Scheving, as well as an aerobics champion, was a health-conscious motivational speaker. He visited 52 countries and in the process developed his concept.
“I discovered that, the world over, parents really want the same thing. They want their kids to be educated, want them to be safe, take exercise, brush their teeth and go to bed early.
“Kids understand two things the world over. They understand honesty. And they understand movement.”
At this juncture Scheving demonstrated his first aerobic move.
The series features a superhero, Sportacus, whose mission in life is to knock a place called LazyTown into shape. He uses everyday items in outrageous ways, never doing anything ordinary when he can do it with flair. He doesn’t tell the kids of LazyTown what to do, but leads by example. His transport of choice is an air ship that is well equipped with plenty of drinking water – from an Icelandic glacier – and fresh fruit. But he needs all the energy he can get, for his nemesis is a slob called Robbie Rotten, who spends his time eating junk food and being seriously lazy. However, our hero has support in the form of eight-year-old Stephanie, the Mayor’s niece.
The series combines a mix of live action and animation. Sportacus – who jumps, flips and spins his way through every episode – before going to bed at exactly 8.08 every night – is very much live. And there was only one candidate for this character: Scheving himself.
In many ways Scheving – who is a youthful-looking 40 and is married with three children – is both LazyTown’s biggest strength and its biggest weakness. He is involved in every aspect of the business to the extent that several underwriters had to share the risk of his key man insurance.
However, as well as acting he also has passionate views on merchandising opportunities.
And on this front he said planning was the key. “And this is exactly where other concepts fall down.” He singles out a handful of recent Holywood blockbusters for criticism.
“If you have a hit, then the bloodsuckers come out and decisions have to be made under much more pressure. The timescales are dramatically reduced in relation to what you are used to and mistakes can be made.
“For example, what is the relevance of many of the blockbuster - brand tie-ins? There is a lack of integrity. It’s not as though they need the money.
“I started from the other end. I wanted to get all the merchandising and joint venture partners identified before I had a hit.
“It is important it is all in place before you get famous. I do not believe you should do business with anybody until you have worked with them for three years.
“Pick your team and then if you have a hit everybody knows what they are doing and what the strategy is. However, remember every concept takes at least 10 years to develop.”
At this point Scheving produced the matrix that has driven his strategy. It has 20 boxes representing areas such as TV, health and beauty, theme parks, food and movies.
“With LazyTown I was keen to tick all these boxes,” he said. “For example, take Tarzan – there would be few merchandising opportunities – except perhaps loin cloths!” he jokes. “Lazy Town is the only concept to tick all these boxes naturally.”
The attention to detail is astonishing – as a walk around the studios demonstrates. You pass departments that have designed the official poses of the character dolls, as well as deciding pantone references for labelling.
Scheving has a hand in it all, which is why it can safely be assumed he is an exhausting presence to hang out with. That explains a note on the studio wall saying, “23 days to go” to the end of the current production.
After that a live GO Campaign Tour is planned, where Scheving plans to perform for up to 10,000 kids at a time, as well as a LazyTown movie.
In this mode Scheving sounds like an out-and-out capitalist. However, two other initiatives suggest it is the girth of the consumer as opposed to the fatness of his wallet that is really motivating him.
He recently started a scheme in Iceland where children could take their real money to a bank. They were issued with Lazy Town money instead, so while their real cash was earning interest, they could then spend this with partner companies that included sports complexes, healthy food outlets and activity centres.
Meanwhile, he was involved in another project to issue every six-year-old girl in Norway with a basketball.
“How much money do you need?” he asked. “My aim is to pay my investors back. I don’t need a lot of money myself.”
One last question from the delegates prompted another spectacular aerobics display that involved at least one full flip. “As you are so busy, how do you keep fit?” someone asked.
“I exercise all the time,” said Scheving, demonstrating some more moves, “I once walked into the chairman’s offices at Viacom on my hands. OK, it might have looked eccentric. But at least he remembered the meeting.”