Q&A with GBI’s Andy Heyward

NEW YORK: Andy Heyward, the CEO of Genius Brands International (GBI), is leading the company as it navigates new-media platforms, age compression and the complexities, and rewards, of catering to kids in a multiplatform media world.

TV KIDS: What were the benefits of merging with Genius Brands last year?
HEYWARD: What appealed to us was that they were in the toddler space and it complemented our business, which had historically been 6 to 11. Our mission is “content with a purpose,” and that means being able to deliver a product that is enriching and more than just entertaining. It’s product that is designed to be consumed across all of the digital channels that kids are on. Kids are accustomed to getting things that they want when they want it; they’re extremely fluent in all of the new-media platforms. As age compression continues and kids get older younger, the importance of having our dance card filled out with a preschool and toddler component increased. We were very aware of the brand equity and the recognition of Baby Genius. In the U.S. it’s been widely distributed, ranging from the SVOD platform on Comcast to YouTube to all of the various retail outlets where the DVDs and the CDs continue to sell very well.

TV KIDS: Has there been a lot of international exposure for Baby Genius?
HEYWARD: There has not been a lot of international exposure. With Andy Berman joining us and overseeing our international sales and building out our international consumer-products capacity as well, we think that’s just another area of opportunity for the company.

TV KIDS: What are some of the opportunities you’re finding with digital platforms?
HEYWARD: We just licensed Baby Genius to Netflix. We’re working closely with Comcast’s SVOD platform, where the Baby Genius product has had over 50 million downloads. We recently did a deal with Leapfrog, which is one of the very successful game platforms for kids, and a number of our programs are going to be distributed there as well. Plus we’re developing our own opportunities. We’ve launched a digital video jukebox where we have all of the songs from Baby Genius. We’ve got about 500 well-known kids’ songs and 125 music videos. There’ll be other products that we’ll be rolling out.

TV KIDS: How do you manage the size and breadth of your portfolio?
HEYWARD: By and large we’re sticking with our brand message: content with a purpose. Everything has to have some enrichment value to it. Now, there will be exceptions. Sometimes there’ll be extraordinary commercial opportunities that will come along—we’ll put them under a different umbrella than Genius Brands. We still have the A Squared umbrella. But we will essentially try and stay focused on the brand message; it’s a way of distinguishing ourselves from a lot of content that’s out there. If you pick up any one of the various [magazines at MIPCOM], it’s like walking into a chandelier store, there’s just so much product, you don’t know which way to turn, and much of it is pretty good! We feel that the way we will distinguish ourselves and make our product valuable and relevant is through the brand. Being faithful to the brand has to be paramount, especially today when parents are so concerned about the proliferation of media everywhere. There are so many opportunities for kids to get their eyeballs on to things that are inappropriate for them, so we think it’s important [to provide] shows that can enrich kids. The Secret Millionaires Club, with Warren Buffett, is all about helping kids to learn about “the business of life,” including lessons in life that are valuable to them—about the importance of partnerships, of honesty, about the nature of credit. And we were able to bring on board such amazing guest-starring talent as Bill Gates, Jay-Z, Giselle Bündchen, Shaquille O’Neal and more, who offer words of wisdom from their own lives. Thomas Edison’s Secret Lab is about showing kids how fun science can be, and it’s all completely drenched in humor, in hijinks and strong character development and good storytelling. Even the work that we’re doing with Stan Lee. The superhero stuff today, so much of it is very dark, filled with a lot of angst, too much violence. We went to Stan and said, “Why don’t we create a new generation of superheroes, but ones that don’t have all kinds of complex anger and angst-laden backstories to them? Where the stories are fun, the good guys always win in the end, the bad guys get their comeuppance, there are no weapons, no imitable violence, and humor is going to be front and center.” And he loved that idea. That gave rise to Stan Lee and the Mighty 7, which was the first of the trilogy of movies that we’re doing with Stan and there will be a subsequent series that’ll come. We’ve got great voice talent ranging from Armie Hammer to Jim Belushi to Teri Hatcher to Flea to Mayim Bialik, and Stan does his own voice as well. Whether it’s teaching kids lessons about science or financial literacy, or just strong entertainment with positive values, not full of violence and troublesome messaging, that’s where we’re planting our flag.

TV KIDS: What are your goals as you head into MIPCOM?
HEYWARD: We’re going to start off with introducing Genius Brands International, under the new structure, and communicating our company and brand messaging: What is our company about? What distinguishes it? Why are the products that we bring to the marketplace important? We’ll be meeting with all the various buyers, many of whom I’ve known for years, and then we will be promoting a number of properties that we have. We’re going to be very active with Secret Millionaires Club, Stan Lee’s Mighty 7 and with Thomas Edison’s Secret Lab, and then of course with Baby Genius in the toddler space.