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.

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Miriam Rozen
Contact: Miriam Rozen