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Lego David

Why did it take so long for LEGO to get into TV Shows?

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During the 1980's period, the toy industry was booming, because pretty much every major toy line at the time had a fully fledged TV cartoon series to back it up. Transformers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, G.I. Joe, He-Man, you name it, were all very popular due to their respective TV cartoons being very good advertisements. Meanwhile, LEGO was going through a big growth period, but none of the themes they had at the time were experiencing any sort of mega popularity. Fast forward to late 90's, when LEGO finally realized that the charm of the bricks alone wasn't enough to keep them afloat, they started branching out from their Classic themes, and trying out new things. One of them was Bionicle, LEGO's first proper attempt at a story-driven theme. Although it didn't have any sort of TV Cartoon, it still had numerous other tie-in media, such as comic books, direct to DVD movies and video games. And guess what? Although still a little bit late in the story-driven toys market, Bionicle became a groundbreaking success for TLG, such as they had never experienced before at that point. Shortly after Bionicle ended in 2010, LEGO launched their next big story-driven theme, Ninjago. Although not exactly LEGO's first attempt at a TV Show (Galidor was the first in 2002, but failed to take off) Ninjago quickly became LEGO's most popular theme of all time, still going strong to this day, due to LEGO finally coming up with a proper TV Cartoon to promote their toys, 30 years after the rest of the toy industry had already adapted to that sort of market. 

So that leads me to the question... Why did it take so long to step into the TV Cartoon business? The intention to tell a stories though their themes was clearly there, as evidenced by the various comic book tie-ins they did throughout the late 80's and early 90's. But why didn't they attempt a fully fledged TV Series back then? If they would have had that back then, we can only imagine at what stage they would have been today. This is a question that I keep thinking about. 

@Aanchir Perhaps you could shine some light about this question, as you seem to know quite a lot about this sort of stuff. 

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Check out the FABUland shows from the 80's on youtube ..

Cheers,

Ole

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Back then, I think that the executives at LEGO saw the LEGO brick as a building toy and nothing else. 

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Posted (edited)

That’s a good question. I guess there’s the possibility that they couldn’t find a studio or team of writers to help them get a television show to air. That’s definitely a plausible explanation but I don’t think that’s the main reason why Lego didn’t develop a series earlier on.

I think the real reason is, from my point of view, Lego tends to be a little behind the times. That especially applies when it comes to media. For example, I don’t think Lego utilizes or engages with the vast community on Youtube very well. They really seem out of touch with the majority of Lego creators there and it doesn’t help that two of the biggest Lego channels left, or were let go, from their flawed Ambassador Network recently. 

I think the same sort of logic applies to why it took so long for Lego to develop television properties. All these other toy brands were releasing television programs that helped push their products, meanwhile Lego seemed content with commercials being their only presence on TV. For whatever reason, they waited to hop on the bandwagon several years after a lot of the other toy brands already had. I guess that they wanted to stick exclusively to play at that time, whether that be the physical toys or the video game market they started branching out into. Maybe the excutives at Lego weren’t ready to produce anything that their consumers couldn’t tangibly interact with, or just didn’t care to. I can’t help but wonder if Lego had found success on TV earlier on, would that have somehow helped them when they were nearing bankruptcy in the early 2000’s?

Lo and behold, Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu was released in 2011 and was obviously a massive success. The show and the physical sets resonated with fans young and old, and both remain popular to this day. I think Lego captured lightning in a bottle with Ninjago and haven’t been able to recapture it with their other properties. Besides Ninjago and some of the Star Wars shows, I don’t think Lego has found much luck in the television sphere. When it came to Galidor, Chima, Nexo Knights and Unikitty, neither the sets or the shows were very popular. I wonder if Lego would have even tried a television show again if Ninjago had been a failure.

To recap, my personal theory as to why Lego didn’t develop a TV series sooner is because they are slow at adapting to trends and the executives at the time most likely didn’t see a TV series as something they wanted their brand to be involved with. This was definitely an interesting topic to think about. Thanks for bringing it up @Lego David!

Edited by The Stud

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3 hours ago, caiman0637 said:

Back then, I think that the executives at LEGO saw the LEGO brick as a building toy and nothing else. 

That is probably correct for everything that came out pre-1978, but after that, it gets a bit harder for me to believe that. Looking at all those 80's and 90's themes, I really get the vibe that the designers were really trying to convey some sort of story through their sets, even if they didn't have a whole lot of tie-in media for them.

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Posted (edited)

One thing to keep in mind is that one of the few TV series Lego worked on that did make it to air pre-Ninjago was Galidor. And that failed so hard that it sort of explains the reluctance to focus that much on TV for at least everything post-2002, up to when Ninjago proved they could do a full TV series that actually worked. Galidor's failure was obviously due to numerous factors including ones that didn't apply to other themes, but issues specific to TV were among them. In the U.S., the show premiered on Fox Kids during what was probably the peak of the competing Kids WB programming block (which had hot shows like Pokémon and Justice League while Fox Kids mostly coasted on the earlier success of Power Rangers and picked up also-ran cartoons and anime to try to capture some of that craze). In the U.K., I've heard that TV advertising laws forced the show to debut more than a half a year after the launch of the accompanying toyline, kneecapping its effectiveness at getting kids to care about the toys when it mattered. Those kinds of issues probably weren't encouraging for Lego, to say the least.

And to be honest, before that Lego did not have that much experience partnering with media companies. It was only in 1999 that Lego did their first movie licensed theme (Star Wars), and only a couple years before that that they started with tie-in media like software (with Lego Island). And even some of those things came with their own missteps—the early "Lego Media" software involved much more in-house development on Lego's part compared to later games. I feel like that kind of approach, if it had been applied to a cartoon series as well, could easily have backfired hard for the company. Perhaps it's a good thing, then, that Lego only re-attempted to break into TV once their financial situation was more secure and they had a better system in place for licensing their own IPs out and retaining creative control without feeling the pressure to do it all themselves.

Edited by Lyichir

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5 hours ago, Lego David said:

But why didn't they attempt a fully fledged TV Series back then?

Back then a "good" series cost much more to produce than LEGO had to spare and the media industry was quite different then. It's as simple as that. Unless you had the goodwill of some exec from one of the big studios/ media companies it was simply not feasible. Producing such stuff is easy, but paying for distribution and syndication a whole different exercise. And well, let's be honest: A lot of LEGO's IP back then was quite odd with little merchandise potential. In an oversaturated market dominated my Transformers, He-Man, Turtles and the like it was inevitable that Galidor would come across as just another copycat/ rip-off and LEGO was in good company with many failed series of that era. One could go endlessly about this and belabor that point, but suffice it to say that until the early 2000s it may just not have been the right market and the right time for any of that to go anywhere....

Mylenium

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Posted (edited)

Lego as a company changed over time, and only recently did they allign with that business model.

Up to the late 90s they would mostly keep things 'classic bricks' beside the occasional experiment like Fabuland. Beside Fabuland it was hard to even find named characters at all, let alone a coherent story, let alone a tv-series! The first named characters came from Pirates (from the tie-in comic, of which only Redbeard seems to have survived). Then there was Majisto from castle in the early nineties. Product descriptions started to become a bit more consistent in featuring one or two 'mascot' characters for subthemes, although these weren't consistent across countries. That problem would persist for up tot the 2000s, as even Adventurers had the infamous Baron Von Baron / Dr Hates / Sam Sinister problem. It wasn't until the late nineties that Lego was even comfortable having themes revolve around named characters again (since Fabuland). In these cases (such as with Adventurers and arguably Western) they released audio dramas.

During the late 90s Lego took a turn for the... weird, and amongst the many, many experiments Lego became increasingly focussed on creating multimedia tie-ins. The multimedia tie-ins were some of the least bizarre offerings. Video games, web series, web animations, web flash games, feature films (Bionicle), comics...
Beside the advent of multimedia, in these turbulent times Lego also started making all sorts of story-driven themes, many of which had multimedia tied to them. Some worked (e.g: Bionicle, Alpha Team, Knights Kingdom II), while others failed (e.g: Galidor). With the failure of the Galidor tv-series, Lego would focus on other forms of media for awhile.

The second major shift of the company was when it turned its policy around on innovation, starting around 2004. For awhile the focus lay on rebuilding its core focus on the brick. But it never did stop trying new things.
Bionicle (2001-2010) in particular was influential in that it arguably became the first 'big bang theme', a theme backed with a strong multimedia-spanning presence that featured a coherent story that ties in with sets. Over the years this involved almost every media type under the sun, but not a show (most likely due to the heavy focus on the other media outlets). Later examples would follow Ninjago. This narrative theme approach with named characters was also tried to a lesser extent with other themes such as Knights Kingdom II (2004-2006), Exo-force (2006-2008), Power Miners (2009-2010) and Atlantis (2010-2011). Of these, none were given a show, as the scope of their multimedia presence was usually tied to one or two outlets at most.

After around 2010 the company was secure enough to try things like its own MMORPG (Lego Universe) or feature films again (Clutch Powers). And at this point Ninjago was made. For the first time in a while they created a tie-in show. But even then, the first year was only the pilot episodes. Lego played it safe and only made a show after the toyline had proven succesful.

Ninjago was actually planned to be a (then-standard) three year theme to be replaced with Chima. Apparently Lego had at this point taken note of the importance of a show to a big-bang theme's success. But it wasn't until Chima underperformed whilst Ninjago performed beyond expectations that Lego finally changed course again and started to truly focus on tv-shows in a structured sense. It un-cancelled Ninjago and made it an 'evergreen theme' like City. And they tried several times to launch another tv-show and tie-in line. At one point they directly licensed Cartoon Network to make Mixels. They seem to have learnt the hard way that both the toyline AND show have to be at least semi-decent if they want to have the the toyline be boosted with a tv-show. After that it was just trying again and again to provide said quality.

And now we have scant few non-licensed themes that are NOT tied to tv-shows or apps. The irony.

So TL;DR: Lego first was afraid to do anything that wasn't the basic brick experience. Then it tried to do everything BUT the basic brick experience, of which their show bombed. And only after sorting its identity issues out did Lego discover the effect a tv-show can have on a toyline. And even then they almost took the wrong message to heart and almost cancelled their one succes to replace it with Chima. Only after fixing THAT did lego learn how to use tv-shows properly. Is

it any wonder that it took so long for them to make tv-series?

Edited by Vaiman

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Posted (edited)
5 hours ago, caiman0637 said:

Back then, I think that the executives at LEGO saw the LEGO brick as a building toy and nothing else. 

Not really — they had no qualms about publishing tie-in comic books and picture books in the mid- to late 80s, or video games in the mid- to late 90s. Not to mention the Fabuland theme, which was heavily media-driven from the very beginning, as mentioned by @1974 in the first reply to this topic!

And in fact, even in the 80s they had ambitions for the "Jim Spaceborn" character from their LEGO Space comics to star in his own computer game, animated movie, and animated series. Besides what others like @Mylenium have brought up, I think some of LEGO's reluctance to create TV tie-in properties can be chalked up to LEGO's awareness of their own limited experience, and the risks that came with it.

As @Lyichir mentions, the failure of the Galidor TV show in the early 2000s (which, contrary to popular belief, originated as a LEGO IP, and was brought to screens via a partnership with the Tom Lynch Company) ended up serving as a powerful example of just how much LEGO had to lose if they invested in developing a TV-based property without the patience and know-how to ensure its success. And that was a live-action series, which within the animation industry are notorious for being much less expensive to produce than cartoons, even if they include CGI visual effects.

After the failure of Galidor, LEGO dialed back back those sorts of ambitions considerably. For several years, the direct-to-DVD Bionicle movies were their most ambitious animated endeavors. However, they also began to dabble in "mini-movies" for some of their other themes like Star Wars, Exo-Force, and Power Miners, which were both released online and broadcast on TV as interstitial content during commercial breaks (albeit on a very limited basis).

In 2010, they took a step further by partnering with the studio behind the final Bionicle movie for three additional animated ventures: A direct-to-DVD LEGO movie (LEGO: The Adventures of Clutch Powers), a 22-minute LEGO Atlantis TV special, and a four-episode LEGO Hero Factory miniseries. From that point, it was not a huge leap for them to release a 44-minute TV special to tie in with the launch of LEGO Ninjago in 2011, or a 22-minute TV special to tie in with the launch of LEGO Friends in 2012.

However, even at that point, note that LEGO was still reluctant to develop (and TV networks were still reluctant to broadcast) a full TV series for brand-new, unproven LEGO themes like these. It was only the massive success of of both the Ninjago TV special and the sets themselves that finally gave both LEGO and broadcast networks like Cartoon Network and SuperRTL the confidence to greenlight a full TV series to tie in with the following year's sets. Likewise, it took the continued success of the LEGO Ninjago TV series to earn LEGO the trust and confidence to develop and broadcast full TV series for themes like Legends of Chima or Nexo Knights in their debut year.

All in all, even if LEGO had been WILLING to jump right into TV development in the 80s or 90s, it's doubtful that they'd have had any sort of lasting success with it. The company's history is rife with examples of positive outcomes from gradual, iterative sorts of innovations, and negative outcomes from abrupt or "disruptive" innovations.

Edited by Aanchir

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Posted (edited)

Although other manufacturers had toys based on cartoons, the cartoons were distinct from the toys. Whereas LEGO media (at least the successful stuff) tends to be based on the actual toys. In the UK and some other European countries it would not have been allowed. Maybe the Danish company were following the same ideals, that (free to air) kids' TV shows should not be solely for advertising.

Edited by MAB

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10 hours ago, Vaiman said:

They seem to have learnt the hard way that both the toyline AND show have to be at least semi-decent if they want to have the the toyline be boosted with a tv-show. After that it was just trying again and again to provide said quality.

That's a very relative term, though. Even Ninjago is technically just cheap filler programming for TV and I'm not sure whether it actually contributes that much to boost sales. At least here in Germany it's running at obscure times on third-rate channels, so the chance to even get to see it is limited unless you really proactively comb through the TV guide and take the time out of your day to sit down.

Mylenium

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4 hours ago, Mylenium said:

That's a very relative term, though. Even Ninjago is technically just cheap filler programming for TV and I'm not sure whether it actually contributes that much to boost sales. At least here in Germany it's running at obscure times on third-rate channels, so the chance to even get to see it is limited unless you really proactively comb through the TV guide and take the time out of your day to sit down.

Mylenium

In my experience, most people who watch still Ninjago nowdays actually do so on YouTube instead of TV. Cartoon Network is treating the Ninjago like its nothing, despite currently being one of the longest running shows from their platform. For whatever reason, Cartoon Network only airs the new seasons 6 months after the sets that were supposed to tie into them have come out, while the episodes get leaked on YouTube much, much earlier than that. So for a TV Show that is supposed to sell toys, I agree that its doing a pretty bad job at being an advertisement. I feel like at this point, LEGO should just upload all the episodes in HD quality on their official YouTube channel instead of waiting until Cartoon Networks has aired them, because lets be real, that's the real place where people actually watch the show. 

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But are the shows on youtube in regional languages?

While my son no longer has any interest in Ninjago, he did have +50 sets and he never really bothered with the TV series. We tried watching the movie but that is really crappy

I do think the LEGO Movie did quite a bit to boost LEGO sales and awareness (the second not so much) but to my understanding the TV series (Ninjago and Chima) didn't really make an impact amongst him and his friends

We still, from time to time, watch anything LEGO SW as those cartoons are pretty funny with a lot of internal SW references that we dig

And Clutch Powers! Although that wasn't tied to any sets/themes in particular

My daughter likes the stupid cartoon with the cat from the LEGO Movie (I hate it!) but she has not asked for any sets ..

Cheers,

Ole

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21 minutes ago, 1974 said:

I do think the LEGO Movie did quite a bit to boost LEGO sales and awareness (the second not so much) but to my understanding the TV series (Ninjago and Chima) didn't really make an impact amongst him and his friends

Maybe it didn't resonate with him and his friends, but it certainly did with almost everyone else. Otherwise, Ninjago wouldn't have ran for 10 years, and we wouldn't have had this conversation today. 

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Posted (edited)

Uhmm, maybe the sets were cool enough?

City, Creator and Technic do not rely on cartoons. SW do, but thankfully Lucasfilm made a few movies over the last four decades so TLG could sell some toys

Edited by 1974

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2 hours ago, 1974 said:

But are the shows on youtube in regional languages?

While my son no longer has any interest in Ninjago, he did have +50 sets and he never really bothered with the TV series. We tried watching the movie but that is really crappy

I do think the LEGO Movie did quite a bit to boost LEGO sales and awareness (the second not so much) but to my understanding the TV series (Ninjago and Chima) didn't really make an impact amongst him and his friends

 

My son was similar. He watched Chima because of the sets and not the other way round.

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11 hours ago, Mylenium said:

That's a very relative term, though. Even Ninjago is technically just cheap filler programming for TV and I'm not sure whether it actually contributes that much to boost sales. At least here in Germany it's running at obscure times on third-rate channels, so the chance to even get to see it is limited unless you really proactively comb through the TV guide and take the time out of your day to sit down.

The scheduling here in the United States can be kind of restrictive as well, although it wasn't always that way — I suspect the availability of streaming and on-demand cable TV services may have something to do with that (just as it led to the end physical home media releases of new Ninjago seasons here in the US).

That said, I'd disagree about the Ninjago TV series being "just cheap filler programming" — in the United States, it's generally had fairly healthy viewership ratings, and in its early years it even surpassed a lot of Cartoon Network's original programming.

And while I can't speak to how much it contributes to sales, animated series are EXTREMELY expensive to produce. So I find it unlikely that LEGO would continue to invest in so many new Ninjago TV episodes year after year if they felt that it played a negligible role in the marketing of the sets themselves. After all, it's not as they've ever been averse to downsizing a theme's media/marketing presence as the years go on, particularly if they have reason to believe that a particular type of media is not "earning its keep".

28 minutes ago, MAB said:

My son was similar. He watched Chima because of the sets and not the other way round.

Truth be told, even that sort of thing can be useful to a theme's sales. An ongoing storyline and engaging characters can do a lot to reinforce a kid's interest in a particular toyline, even if they were aware of or interested in the toys before they became aware of or interested in the storyline.

I certainly suspect there are a lot of people (myself included) who remained interested in themes like Ninjago or Bionicle for 10+ years, and might not have found those themes nearly as engaging in the long term if there weren't a storyline to give the characters and sets additional meaning, present new mysteries to speculate about, inspire fan art/fan fiction and original characters, and provide new topics to discuss with fellow fans.

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12 hours ago, Aanchir said:

Truth be told, even that sort of thing can be useful to a theme's sales. An ongoing storyline and engaging characters can do a lot to reinforce a kid's interest in a particular toyline, even if they were aware of or interested in the toys before they became aware of or interested in the storyline.

Yes, that could happen too. But not in this case. We only watched the DVDs after I spotted them for 50p in a second hand store, which was after Chima had ended (or possibly in the last wave).

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12 hours ago, Aanchir said:

And while I can't speak to how much it contributes to sales, animated series are EXTREMELY expensive to produce.

But not at that quality level.... That's what? A bunch of stock rigs? Quick low quality render settings? Paying the voice-over artists probably consumes more of the budget than the actual visuals. Most LEGO animated series look pretty kack and I doubt that any single episode cost more than 100000 bucks and garbage like Friends is probably even cheaper - a lot. I mean some episodes of Paw Patrol look better and not to speak of slightly more advanced stuff like Miraculous or Star Wars...

Mylenium

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Posted (edited)
9 hours ago, Mylenium said:

But not at that quality level.... That's what? A bunch of stock rigs? Quick low quality render settings? Paying the voice-over artists probably consumes more of the budget than the actual visuals. Most LEGO animated series look pretty kack and I doubt that any single episode cost more than 100000 bucks and garbage like Friends is probably even cheaper - a lot. I mean some episodes of Paw Patrol look better and not to speak of slightly more advanced stuff like Miraculous or Star Wars...

Mylenium

You’d be surprised. For one thing, I’m not sure if you’ve watched any of the current LEGO Friends TV series “Girls on a Mission”, but the visual quality is easily up there with shows like Miraculous — you can check out some of the episodes in this playlist for examples. The Ninjago TV series has also had pretty high quality in recent seasons, much more so than in the pilot and early seasons, in which trees were typically portrayed as simple geometric shapes, and most character designs were almost perfectly smooth, rather than having bump maps to define varying materials like fabric, leather, or metal.

For that matter, both the current Ninjago and Friends series occasionally include flashbacks or “imagine spots” in entirely different animation styles than the rest of the series, meaning they can’t just use their typical character animation rigs for them. In fact, some Ninjago episodes such as “The Absolute Worst” and “The Last of the Formlings” are PRIMARILY in a 2D, hand-drawn animation style.

Moreover, $100,000 per episode (which is honestly an extremely conservative estimate for a TV-quality CGI animated series) is still a lot when you consider that in recent years, Ninjago has gotten around 30 new episodes per year! Needless to say, LEGO would not be likely to invest that heavily in new seasons of a TV series like Ninjago if they genuinely felt they weren’t generating considerably more sales from them than they would from traditional, 90-second TV commercials.

My point isn’t that series like Ninjago is somehow the pinnacle of kids’ animated TV, but rather that the cost of ANY animated series of that kind is too great for a company like LEGO to invest in year-after-year for over a decade if they weren’t seeing a meaningful return on their investment. In the very least, it would be scaled down to a shorter miniseries if they believed its impact on sales was really as minimal as you seem to imagine.

Edited by Aanchir

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