Sandy Frank's Sales Pitch

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ASI Market Research reports

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Battle of the Planets trade magazine advertisements

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Battle of the Planets trade magazine advertisement (Variety)


Ready to hit the road.

Now back in America, Sandy Frank geared up to begin pre-selling Battle of the Planets for the upcoming Fall television season. He and Jameson Brewer fine tuned the pilot a little more, including tightening edits and removing a little more footage. With those changes complete, Frank was ready to set out on his lengthy sales tour. At this time in television sales an independent producer like Sandy Frank would hand carry a copy of a prospective show to television stations across North America. This took a lot of planning, time and effort and Sandy Frank was directly involved in the majority of this direct selling process. After nearly a year of preparation, Monday, May 15, 1978 marked the first day Battle of the Planets was officially offered to national program buyers. May was also the month Sandy Frank officially hired most of the Battle of the Planets staff for the series. Even though their work would not start right away, he wanted them committed to the project when and if it got the go-ahead.

The prospect of going out to sell Battle of the Planets didn't seem like it was going to be a daunting task. After all, what television station would want to turn down a program that could reach the same target audience as Star Wars? As it turned out, quite a few stations were willing to say no and pass on Battle of the Planets at that point. Various reasons were given, none of which seemed satisfactory to Sandy Frank. Why with all the positive points the show had going for it, was it continuing to get turned down outright?

Less than a month into the series sales and with only a handful of commitments to show for his efforts, Sandy Frank knew he needed answers. Was the program a serious misstep in his calculations? Was it simply not the kind of thing that could attract young viewers? Was there a missing factor that would interest buyers? A break in the sales schedule was taken so some professional test screenings could be arranged and analyzed.

The Battle of the Planets pilot episode was audience tested in New York City and Los Angeles by the ASI Market Research Company. The New York test took place on Sunday, June 11, 1978 with three separate age groups consisting of a mix of boys and girls. The age groups were 6 - 8, 9 -11 and 12-15 year olds. Each of the three groups were shown the pilot at different times and their reactions and comments to it were recorded live to audio tape.

The research gathered answers to all kinds of questions ranging from how well the characters were liked by the children, if they liked Battle of the Planets more or less than other shows airing at the time, what they felt could be changed to make the show better, even to where they thought it should air on TV schedules.

The Los Angeles audience research was conducted by ASI on both Sunday, June 11 and Saturday, June 17, 1978. In these instances two age groups of mixed boys and girls were tested on each date, consisting of 6-11 and 12-15 year olds. The mothers of the youngsters were also included in these tests to gauge their reactions. Again, all group reactions were recorded live to audio tape.

All of this research was done in reaction to the slower than expected pre-sales of the pilot. But Battle of the Planets did exceptionally well with its audience testing and Sandy Frank was provided with the knowledge that he was indeed on the right track. Now all he had to do was convince buyers. With a solid product, a popular genre and newly acquired excellent test data, Sandy Frank was ready to head back out on the sales circuit by late June. Now feeling that Battle of the Planets couldn't be ignored, he was anxious to use the new information he'd collected to bolster his presentations.

The pre-sale for Battle of the Planets continued for the next month but still with minor success. A sale or two here and there was not going to cut it. Sandy Frank had a mid-August deadline in mind at which time he would either have a series to produce or he would have to cut the Battle of the Planets crew loose and thank them for their hard work. With his deadline fast approaching, he wasn't anywhere close to sure that his new venture was going to work out. A good many TV stations across North America were still needed to purchase Battle of the Planets before it could get the green-light for full series production.*

The best case for Battle of the Planets would have been to have started off with a small number of sales to a few major market stations. This would have been a benefit because as the major stations went, so went the smaller ones. If a few large stations purchased the show then sales would have cascaded down through the many smaller outlets and the series' production would have been quickly ensured. But that didn't happen. Naturally, the larger major market stations were the hardest to crack. Every production company out there was hitting the major stations up each season to purchase their new lineups. Since their airtime was limited, stations tended to go with what they knew would work and Battle of the Planets was a risk not many were willing to take.

Potential buyers actually quite liked what they saw, but they weren't ready to commit to such a different-looking program - and one that was primarily a drama on top of it. Most afternoon children's programming was made up of repackaged comic cartoon series and shorts like Woody Woodpecker and other similar characters. Programmers were hesitant to change a working strategy that pulled in solid viewer numbers for a single untested program. So Battle of the Planets' very uniqueness was also proving to be its ruin in sales. "All of this creative production is all well and good, but it doesn't mean a thing if TV station program buyers don't see the future beyond Bugs Bunny and Tom & Jerry reruns," Sandy Frank once lamented.

All of the time, effort and money that was put into buying Gatchaman and assembling a crew to get the English-language pilot ready was dangerously close to being for nothing. If it didn't sell its first time out, Sandy Frank probably would have attempted to sell it one more time at a later date. But the first time is always the most probable in TV sales, and if Battle of the Planets didn't sell at that point, it was likely to become a property that couldn't be developed. Certainly not in the way it ended up happening. But since he was shrewd enough to acquire the other worldwide rights, it was probable Frank would have sold Gatchaman "as-is" to international buyers who could have adapted the original Japanese programs to their own broadcast standards. Either that or he could have sold the rights to another company, or possibly even back to Tatsunoko Productions.

With the deadline threatening to kill the show and a good number of sales still needed, Battle of the Planets' savior came in the form of major New York station WNEW. In mid-July Sandy Frank convinced New York City's WNEW (one of the first TV stations in the US) to commit to air Battle of the Planets. WNEW was extremely influential in the business and many of their competitors kept a close eye on what the station did.

When the powerhouse Metromedia Group got wind of the WNEW deal, they jumped in almost immediately and also picked Battle of the Planets up. With Metromedia's national affiliation of major market stations on board and the previous sales that had been made, Battle of the Planets now had more than the minimum number of sales it needed to be produced.

These last minute major deals opened the floodgates and made the final weeks of the show's pre-sales window extremely active. They also gave Sandy Frank a lot of breathing room and something to tout on the series' behalf. He continued to sell the show, but now it was far easier. Some stations that had previously turned him down now came back asking if it was too late to get the show for their markets (for many, because of the Metromedia deal, it was).

This turnaround took Battle of the Planets' pre-sales from the edge of disaster to a nearly unprecedented success. By his Tuesday, August 15, 1978 pre-sale deadline, a good seventy-five major market stations were pre-sold including forty-four of the top fifty, which encompassed seventy-four percent of homes across the nation. Sales on the series continued regularly after the pre-sale deadline and Sandy Frank was kept busy hopping back and forth across the country for a time, but only the stations that signed up before August 15, 1978 were set to receive Battle of the Planets for its debut later in the year.

It is not too much of a stretch to suggest that had Battle of the Planets not sold in North America, the second Japanese animation boom in the US could have taken many more years to occur, and probably would have been handled much differently. Without Battle of the Planets, it is quite probable there never would have been a Star Blazers, Robotech or beyond.

Next, Battle of the Planets moves into full series production.

 

*The numbers reported for the amount of stations needed to ensure Battle of the Planets' series production have varied. In some instances it has been claimed at around fifty-five, in others around seventy. I happen to believe the number was closer to fifty-five. The late sale to Metromedia Group gained a lot of stations across the US, with the total number being seventy-five when the pre-sales were complete. This number of seventy-five major stations was a huge point in Sandy Frank's sales pitches afterwards. If the actual number needed had been seventy and Battle of the Planets had only made its goal by a few stations, it probably wouldn't have been worth touting in trade magazines and sales promotions.

 

 

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