Year of the dog
Rick Duffield is a quiet, understated man, not one to gloat. He claims he hasn't even been inside a Target store recently. But if he had, Duffield certainly would feel a wee bit of glee at what he saw.
Barney, the reigning champion of children's television, is being supplanted on store shelves, replaced by Duffield's own creation--Wishbone, the thespian dog.
Barney is, of course, the ubiquitous six-foot-tall, purple dinosaur who, eight years ago, began entrancing toddlers and torturing parents with interminable repetitions of his trademark "We are one big happy family" song.
Launched to stardom by a show on public television, Barney has generated bountiful profits for co-creator Sheryl Leach and her father-in-law, Richard Leach, who first bankrolled the dinosaur's career with $700,000.
In Barney's heyday in 1994, Forbes magazine listed Barney as one of the highest paid entertainers in the country, raking in an estimated $84 million in royalties and $500 million more from the sale of Barney dolls and trinkets.
The dinosaur didn't get all that money. It went primarily to the Leaches through Lyrick Studios, the family's Richardson company that produces the Barney show.
Toddlers are still enthralled by Barney, and the purple creature continues to generate a healthy cash flow. But the dinosaur's halcyon days have passed. While no longer all the rage, however, Barney has taught the Leach family a valuable lesson--public television can be a path to great riches.
The formula for success is simple: Create a lovable character, air the show on public television to give it an educational patina, and then pocket the big money by marketing spin-offs like dolls, T-shirts, and bed sheets.
The family company now is betting that Wishbone, a Jack Russell terrier known to dress in pantaloons, will be its next cash cow.
This time it is Duffield--Richard Leach's son-in-law--who is poised to engineer a ride on the public television gravy train. Duffield created Wishbone, and the dog's show has been airing on public television stations for two years. Duffield's company, Big Feats! Entertainment, is a subsidiary of Lyrick Studios. Richard Leach has pumped in most of the roughly $24 million it has taken to groom Wishbone for stardom.
Wishbone is a different beast than Barney, and the dog's show is aimed at an older crowd--grade-schoolers. In the series, the brown-and-white spotted pup plays the protagonist in souped-up versions of classic tales of literature. So, for instance, the perky canine dons plastic armor to play Odysseus or 18th century garb to portray Ichabod Crane.
A dog muttering Shakespearean sonnets might sound implausible, but this is children's television. The show now boasts about seven million viewers nationwide. (In Dallas, KERA-Channel 13 airs Wishbone every weekday at 5:30 p.m.)
Wishbone has become so popular that Duffield and Big Feats! Entertainment have decided the time is right to unleash a product-licensing bonanza on the order of the blitzkrieg that made Barney inescapable a few years ago.
Parents and kids venturing out for back-to-school shopping have encountered Wishbone everywhere. The dog's likeness is on T-shirts, play-wear, backpacks, linens, two different series of books, a CD-ROM, a full-length video movie, tennis shoes, and bedding supplies. And, of course, there is a talking Wishbone doll. Squeeze its tail, and the mouthy stuffed Wishbone--priced at a steep $32.95--will utter such pearls of wisdom as "Don't go there."
So far, Wishbone's marketers have signed contracts with 35 different companies to manufacture 104 different types of Wishbone products.
Which brings us back to the Target stores. In early August, the massive retail chain launched a national advertising campaign featuring Wishbone--a bona fide celebrity, now that he has been featured in People magazine.
As part of the promotion, Target is offering children a chance to enter a national sweepstakes. The prize is an appearance by Wishbone himself (the real dog's name is Soccer, and he has three stand-ins--Shiner, Slugger, and Bear) at the winner's school.
As he worms his way into the fickle hearts of schoolchildren, Wishbone is also muscling Barney off the store shelves.
But the money is pretty much going to the same place--the children's entertainment juggernaut of Richard Leach.
A patriarch presiding over a large Catholic clan with nine grown children and 19 grandchildren, Richard Leach has fashioned a wildly successful entertainment company in the unlikely locale of North Texas. (The press-shy Leach does not grant interviews and did not speak with the Dallas Observer for this story.)
His parent corporation, RCL Enterprises, Inc., started out publishing religious texts and school books. In the late 1980s, Leach began exploring the then-emerging video business, and that endeavor ultimately led to the creation of Lyrick Studios and the much-chronicled Barney jackpot.
All but two of Leach's children either work for their dad's company, have a spouse who does, or both. Until recently, Rick Duffield's wife, Mary Ellen--Leach's daughter--served as brand manager for Wishbone products. Extending the family business tree even further, Duffield's son Joe acts in the Wishbone series, playing the role of Damont Jones.
It was the elder Leach who put up $700,000 cash for the first Barney & Friends videos in the early '90s. Barney's creative origins are now a little murky, revised by the Leaches after an apparent falling-out between the show's two creators.
When Barney first came onto the scene, Sheryl Leach--Richard Leach's daughter-in-law--told interviewers that she and a friend named Kathy Parker came up with the Barney idea. The two friends, who described themselves as just "two Texas moms," were both former teachers on maternity leave when they supposedly spawned the Barney videos as a way to keep their toddlers entertained.
But in more recent years, Parker has disappeared from the scene, no longer mentioned in the official Barney histories promulgated by the company. Sheryl Leach, who now lives in Connecticut, told a Des Moines Register reporter in 1994 that "even when Parker started with us, she always followed my direction because she didn't have, well, you know, it was my idea, our company, our money."
Even though profits from Barney probably paid for the research time Duffield needed to create Wishbone, the Leach son-in-law can barely conceal his disdain for the purple dinosaur, who inspired an "I hate Barney Secret Society" and a 6,000-subscriber newsletter dedicated to complaints about the annoying children's entertainer. "Barney," Duffield says, "wasn't my cup of tea."
At another moment, Duffield says, "I really don't think at Barney. Our show is so distinct."
In many regards, the Wishbone series is vastly different from its corporate cousin. The Wishbone show has glitzier sets and costumes and has received more critical acclaim. For two years in a row, the Television Critics Association has selected Wishbone as the best children's television show, and the show's costumes have won daytime Emmys.
Targeting older kids--and even attracting adult viewers--the show appeals to a broader audience on subtler levels than Barney fans might recognize. (Duffield says he's been told some members of the White House press corps tune in to Wishbone episodes in the mid-morning when presidential news is scarce.)
The dog show works for those who want a sort of canine Cliffs Notes of great novels and short stories. Wishbone imagines himself playing some role in the classic stories, and then throws in a few punch lines. Actor Larry Brantley, who does voice-overs for the dog, often employs an amusing, wise-guy manner and switches to a British accent in some scenes.
The series also draws in viewers with its earnest mini-dramas about the lives of Wishbone's owner, Joe Talbot, his widowed mother, Ellen Talbot, and their friends and acquaintances in the fictional town of Oakdale. The characters use the classic story lines to sort out real-life problems, all in 30-minute episodes.
For instance, when Wishbone plays the superstitious schoolteacher Ichabod Crane in a version of Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (The Legend of Creepy Collars is a one-hour Wishbone special to be aired October 15), owner Joe wrestles with his fears about Halloween night and black cats.
There is another big difference between Wishbone and Barney, but it is one the Leaches hope to erase: Wishbone does not have a big-name corporate sponsor to underwrite its PBS show.
So far, Big Feats! has produced 49 Wishbone episodes, and each has cost about $500,000, according to Duffield. Most of the money has come from Richard Leach's company, with a small amount kicked in by PBS. Neither Duffield nor PBS will reveal how much money PBS has contributed.
Last month, Duffield told an audience of television critics that there will be no more episodes unless a company steps to the plate to underwrite the program.
Duffield made similar tin-cup pleas in the fall of 1996, and squeezed some more money out of PBS. Duffield won't divulge specific numbers on Wishbone's finances, but insists Richard Leach won't put up the cash for any more episodes. A corporate sponsor, a network, or someone else will have to come forward, he insists.
But Duffield's poor-mouthing is hard to take seriously. It seems unlikely that Wishbone will be retired. A lot of money has already been plowed into the project, and Richard Leach and family are just now poised to start reaping its commercial bounty.
It's a sweltering Texas summer day in late July and Rick Duffield tools his dark green Ford Expedition through the fictional town of Oakdale. The backlot in Allen is impressive, about six city blocks long with more than a dozen full-scale buildings. There is Joe's house, his neighbor Wanda's flower-cluttered abode, a library, a school building, a pizza parlor, and a sporting goods store. All are haunts where Wishbone and the show's other characters convene to work out the struggles of their mini-dramas.
The abridged literary tales on which the shows are based are always spliced with glimpses into the real lives of the characters. The literary dramas are supposed to draw children in, and the rest teaches them lessons about life.
"I wanted to create a connection between a child's experience and what we show," says Duffield. The sitcoms children can watch on network television are "extremely negative," he adds. "All the humor is based on put-downs. It demeans kids and parents." On his show, he wants to "create the possibility of making a family happen in a neighborhood, like the way it should be."
A graduate of Yale University Divinity School, Duffield traveled an unusual route to children's television. He planned a career as professor of religious studies before he started working for his father-in-law's publishing business.
A tall 42-year-old man with piercing eyes and an otherwise quiet appearance, Duffield finished graduate school in 1979. He went to work editing books for his father-in-law, who at that time was publishing educational material.
But Richard Leach soon told Duffield that if the son-in-law really wanted to learn the business, "You've got to get out and sell," Duffield recalls. Duffield was dispatched to Philadelphia, literally peddling school books. He doesn't remember the time fondly. "I'm more for sitting in my office and noodling," concedes Duffield, who now works in a dark, book-filled chamber. There are, of course, plenty of dog-related accoutrements, and the top border of the office's wallpaper is a scroll listing the titles of the first 40 Wishbone episodes.
Duffield's ticket out of selling came in the late '80s, when Richard Leach, along with other book publishers, began to explore the growing video business. Before he had turned to religious studies in college, Duffield was a television and filmmaking major. It was a field he thought he had kissed good-bye. "I had two kids; I thought, 'I'll never get back into filmmaking,'" recalls Duffield, who is now the father of three.
But his father-in-law told him to come to Dallas, where Leach had moved his shop from Chicago for economic reasons. Leach charged Duffield with writing for educational videos. Duffield's forte became little mini-dramas for the classroom, educational films in which characters played out the themes a teacher was attempting to impart to students. The vignettes, Duffield says, gave him a great warm-up for the later Wishbone series.
The work ultimately led to a full-length feature, called Oak Street Chronicles, which Duffield sold to the Disney Channel.
About that time, in the early '90s, Barney entered its boom years, and it became clear that the video business had potential far beyond the classroom.
While Sheryl Leach was making a name for herself and the dinosaur, her father-in-law began encouraging Duffield to come up with his own series.
"The great gift he gave me was time," says Duffield of Richard Leach, whom Duffield calls a marketing genius. "I really believe that if you are to look for what seems to have worked here, it goes back to one man: Dick Leach."
Initially, Duffield's idea was half-formed--he knew he wanted his show to include kids and a dog. He wanted to produce an educational series with a talking canine that would help kids work through their everyday problems. "I was very attracted to telling it from a dog's point of view," Duffield says.
For a while, Duffield even tried developing a show that had the kids, the talking dog, and an educational introduction to music. But the idea didn't work. So Duffield kept mulling his idea over--indeed he devoted the whole year of 1993 to noodling.
He recalls almost precisely the moment the full-blown idea for the Wishbone series came to him. He happened to spy out of the corner of his eye a thick volume titled Masterpiece World of Literature. Stuck to some of its pages were little Post-it Notes that Duffield had put there years earlier. The notes were to himself, summarizing the central themes the classic works struck. On a page of the abridged version of Frankenstein, for instance, Duffield had placed a note that read, "outcasts." Duffield says he suddenly realized that his dog could enter the classic tales and act out parts in them.
The idea took off. By the summer of 1993, Leach had given Duffield the money to hire a producer, and a seven-minute sample trailer was filmed. Duffield worked with focus groups. The surveys led to two conclusions, Duffield recalls: Keep the dog as the center of the show, and literally make it bright, with lots of lighting.
With a sampling, Duffield began to shop the idea in Hollywood. But he says Leach ultimately took it to public television, which contracted to air 40 episodes. "He felt he really owed PBS," Duffield says about his father-in-law.
Wishbone's early days also sowed the seeds of an unpleasant fight that continues to dog the show.
Musicians from the Dallas Symphony Orchestra helped record the music for the first 40 Wishbone episodes. At the time they were recording the music, the musicians did not know what it was for, says the Dallas and Fort Worth musician union president Ray Hair.
But there were problems paying the musicians, so the union investigated and found out it had been providing scores for Wishbone shows. Hair says he also discovered that Big Feats! Entertainment was paying what he terms "substandard wages." The dispute between the company and the union president has yet to be settled, and when Duffield began recording the latest nine installments of Wishbone, he went out of town to make the accompanying music.
Hair says the battle is not over. His musicians may even picket KERA studios when the hour-long Wishbone special airs this October. "The way Wishbone has treated the musicians does not comport with the morality plays that they attempt to get out to the public," Hair says.
Duffield contends that Hair doesn't necessarily speak for the musicians, but Duffield won't discuss the dispute in detail.
"If it's adventure you want, you've come to the right spot." That's one of the things the new talking Wishbone doll will tell you when you squeeze its left front paw.
Although he looks a little embarrassed to admit it, Rick Duffield scripted and helped actor Brantley compose all 12 phrases that the toy dog utters.
But the brand marketing of Wishbone is something Duffield is trying to distance himself from. He did work on the Wishbone CD-ROM, and does help oversee the two different series of Wishbone books. (One is The Adventures of Wishbone, retellings of famous works of literature like Don Quixote and The Odyssey, published by Richard Leach. The company is also publishing Wishbone mysteries, original stories in which Wishbone and his friends try to solve puzzling events by using clues from great literature.)
But there is a lot more Wishbone stuff that Duffield keeps at bay: the Wishbone prizes in Crackerjack boxes, the Wishbone fan club--with some 7,000 members at $10 a pop--the Wishbone sheets, the Wishbone lunch boxes, the Wishbone character figurines that were available at Wendy's.
The Wishbone paraphernalia may be a source of chagrin for Duffield, but for Richard Leach and his entertainment empire, mass marketing is clearly the pot of gold.
Let the dinosaur fade into the sunset. Wishbone is ready to step to the plate.
"Wishbone has arrived," says Donna Breedlove, the director of strategic marketing for Big Feats! Entertainment. "We want to manage him as a long-term brand.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.