For its first venture into the kids animated content creation business, Herschend Enterprises isn’t just looking to get its feet wet—the company is diving right in, quite literally.
The Peachtree Corners, Georgia-based company, which owns sports entertainment franchise The Harlem Globetrotters, operates a raft of theme parks, water parks, aquariums and other attractions across the US. Herschend’s latest venture involves teaming up with another family-run business, L.A.-based The Jim Henson Company, to co-produce a new educational comedy series.
With the help of renowned American oceanographer and conservationist Dr. Sylvia Earle, the 40 x 30-minute series Splash, which is slated to premiere this fall on PBS KIDS, is inspired by American puppeteer, performer and comedian John Tartaglia’s off-Broadway children’s musical, ImaginOcean, which he created and co-produced.
Aimed at kids ages four to seven, Splash will be produced using groundbreaking Henson Digital Puppetry technology, created by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, that allows puppeteers to perform digitally animated characters in real time. Each episode will feature two 11-minute underwater adventures that follow Splash, the inquisitive yellowtail fusilier fish, and his Reeftown friends, as they catch currents to far-off places and meet diverse sea creatures, learn about the ocean, and bring their newfound knowledge back to share with their neighborhood.
“We really love the character and story. It ties in well with a lot of our properties,” says Herschend CEO Andrew Wexler. “In some ways, we’ve been in the content space for 50 years, but the way we’ve been doing it is creating characters and stories within the gates of our parks—whether you go to Silver Dollar City in Missouri or Dollywood in Tennessee, we develop characters and stories around rides. But this is really our first foray into TV and animation.”
“Our best partnerships are between ourselves and another indie,” says The Jim Henson Company’s CEO, Lisa Henson. “We love everything from Herschend’s motto about creating memories to share as a family, which sort of dovetails nicely with how we feel about families and what we dedicate our creativity to. They have been creating memories in physical locations, and we create family experiences in media.”
Both sides agree that there is a need for a new kids marine biology show that portrays characters as being friendly and easy to understand, as if they were kids or woodlands animals, adds Henson. “It’s sometimes hard for kids to relate to fish because they live in an environment that we can’t see,” she says. “The ocean appears opaque and it’s hard to know what’s down there, so we want to bring that to life in a very friendly and comfortable way for kids so that they might feel like the fish in the ocean are their friends and care about them — cultivating the idea of empathy for creatures in the ocean.”
The series is slated to premiere this fall on PBS KIDS. Henson plans to launch consumer products in August 2017, and a range of digital content will also aim to keep kids engaged with the new brand. Key categories for the colorful underwater IP will be toys, plush, publishing and apparel. The series will also be available for international distribution, handled by Henson EVP of global distribution Richard Goldsmith.
“It’s a fantastic property for international,” says Henson. “One of the themes is that the ocean connects us all.” Notably, the series is set in the Coral Triangle—the coral reef-filled waters bordering Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and Papua New Guinea—which means there is nothing uniquely American about the show. “We also have found that there are certain countries where the ocean, fish and marine biology are even more important to their culture than here in America,” adds Henson. “So we’re hoping to have some robust international interest.”
Meanwhile, back in the US, Herschend, will be managing all theme park entertainment rights and live shows in addition to being a co-owner/producer of the IP. The company is busy working on several different angles to bring Splash to life in its parks through live and location-based entertainment, as well as via 4D experiences. Of course, tying the show’s aquatic theme to Herschend’s water parks and aquariums is also a top priority.
“For us, the future is in being able to develop, acquire, license or partner on characters and stories that we can distribute through both our theme parks and other mediums,” says Wexler. For example, Herschend bought the Harlem Globetrotters in October 2013 with two things in mind. The first was to purchase an iconic American property that can be distributed across different platforms, such as animation. The second was to own the infrastructure of an arena-touring business.
“As we step into the IP and content business, the idea is to have a strong pipeline of characters and stories to activate in immersive ways for our guests,” says Wexler. “With additional IP, we can maybe turn Splash into an arena or theatre-touring production through our Harlem Globetrotter infrastructure.”