Disney Seeks to Take Its ‘Phineas and Ferb’ Cartoon Hit to Next Level
Picture the early days of “SpongeBob SquarePants” — before the theme park tie-ins, the movies and the merchandising blitz. Back when it was just a goofy animated show that somehow developed a loyal audience.
By that measure, “Phineas and Ferb” is the new “SpongeBob.” A witty Disney Channel series about two stepbrothers and their pet platypus, “Phineas and Ferb” has blossomed into a ratings hit among children. Can thenow whip the show into a “SpongeBob”-size franchise?
It is certainly trying.
Disney has shifted gears from a soft to a hard sell for “Phineas and Ferb.” Costumed characters have been introduced at, where posters advertising the show also adorn ticket kiosks. By mid-July, the program’s first major merchandising line will be introduced by mass retailers — , Kmart, , , Target — and a monthly magazine will arrive soon. In addition, Kraft has licensed Phineas Flynn and Ferb Fletcher to adorn its Macaroni and Cheese line (arriving in grocery aisles in 2011).
“We have the ability to identify properties and emerging trends that are capturing the attention of kids — what’s the hottest license, what’s coming up — and ‘Phineas and Ferb’ is definitely one,” said Lisa Harnisch, avice president.
Disney, particularly keen on expanding the show’s male audience, has also successfully pushed sports leagues and teams (the Los Angeles Dodgers, for example) to integrate the characters into in-stadium videos and marketing efforts. Theused a song from the program, “Squirrels in My Pants,” intercut with game video to promote its recent playoffs.
And, of course, there is a surge of new “Phineas and Ferb” content on the way, including a TV movie. A potential spinoff is centered on the Fireside Girls, a gaggle of Girl Scout-types that often aid the stepbrothers in their adventures. Disney is also working on related live-action talk show where the two characters (as cartoons) interview celebrities.
“Phineas and Ferb,” created by Dan Povenmire and Jeff Marsh, both veterans of shows like “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy,” took 16 years to make it onto television. The pair were repeatedly told that their idea — two 11-minute shorts that each have three story lines that intersect at the conclusion — was too confusing for children to follow. Each episode also features an original song.
“To be fair, it is an intimidating show compared to what else is out there,” said Mr. Marsh, who goes by the nickname Swampy. “Disney in particular had never done a show like this before,” he added, referring to the intention to create episodes by first using drawings, or storyboards, rather than a script.
“We fought very hard early on not to dumb anything down,” said Mr. Povenmire. “We don’t really care if there is a joke that goes over a kid’s head — there will be another joke coming at them in five seconds. All we care about is that the kid doesn’t want to turn the channel.”
The animation style of the characters is also unusual. Phineas’s head is a triangle and Ferb’s is a rectangle. Each episode revolves around the stepbrothers’ coming up with over-the-top projects to stave off summer boredom. They used a snow cone machine to make a ski slope in their backyard in one episode. In another they sent a miniaturized submarine into their sister’s digestive system.
Disney has struggled in recent years to gain traction in television animation. It has found some success in the preschool market with shows like “Handy Manny” and “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse.” But blockbusters like “SpongeBob” — shows that hit a cultural nerve and attract children and adults alike — have been all but nonexistent.
“SpongeBob,” long the dominant television cartoon and the property of its rival Nickelodeon, is clearly in Disney’s sights. At a recent brand licensing trade show in Las Vegas, Gary Marsh, president of entertainment and chief creative officer for Disney Channel Worldwide, listed various ratings coups for “Phineas and Ferb,” ending with a triumphant, “Yep, beating out ‘SpongeBob.’ ”
The accuracy of that statement depends on how the Nielsen figures are sliced and diced, but for 2009, “Phineas and Ferb” was the No. 1 television animated series among children 6 to 11.
“SpongeBob” is still a firm No. 1 when judged by the broader children’s demographic of 2 to 11, Nickelodeon said. “Their math is fuzzy,” said David Bittler, a Nickelodeon spokesman. “ ‘SpongeBob’ and four of our other programs all rank higher than that show this year.”
Disney executives say they have tried to take a slow-and-steady approach when it comes to turning the series, which began in 2007, into a franchise. “Phineas and Ferb” is shown on both Disney Channel and Disney XD.
“It was like a felt-tip pen on a napkin; you plant it there and it at first makes a very small dot and then spreads,” said Gary Marsh, who is not related to Jeff Marsh. “You don’t want to hawk it to the nth degree to launch it,” he continued. “If people discover it on their own first, they will feel a sense of ownership.”
The songs have proved to be one of the most important elements of the series. Getting a song into a child’s head is often the key to immortality — think about the theme music for “The Flintstones.” For an coming episode, Jeff Marsh and Mr. Povenmire got Chaka Khan and Clay Aiken to record a duet.
The music is also a way for content to spread virally on the Web, particularly among college students.
“I honestly was starting to lose hope about cartoons because all of the new ones seem to be mean-spirited or raunchy,” said Kirstie Barlow, a 19-year-old college student whose YouTube channel about the series has nearly 11,000 subscribers. “This show is funny because it’s witty. I don’t feel like my brain cells are dying when I’m watching it.”