Number 1

Dora the Explorer

How Nickelodeon slew Barney.

Households containing both basic cable and at least one preschooler are surely familiar with Dora the Explorer, Nickelodeon’s animated hit about a doe-eyed Latina girl who lives inside a computer. In every episode, the bilingual Dora and her trusty monkey, Boots, embark on a colorful adventure seeking out lost robots, magic wands, and valuable lessons on self-esteem. For good measure, they also throw a few Spanish vocabulary words into the mix. The show and its licensed goods—paper plates, wallets, miniature moonbounces—have brought in an estimated $1 billion since Dora premiered in August of 2000. And Dora the Explorer: Silly Fiesta debuted atop Billboard’s Kid Video chart this week, knocking Dora the Explorer: It’s a Party out of the No. 1 spot.

Dora is more than the next Barney—at least in terms of revenue, she’s bigger than Barney ever was. How has she managed to ensnare so many devotees in the juice-box set? Though the show is ostensibly targeted at viewers between the ages of 2 and 5, Nickelodeon understands that it is adults who control both the remote and the purse strings. The network has done a masterful job getting parents to trust the Dora brand, and its early embrace of the DVD format has helped amp up the bottom line.

The network’s first smart move was using Dora to assert Nickelodeon’s multicultural bona fides. In 2000, when magazines and newspapers were awash in ghastly statistics about minority representation on TV (just 3 percent of characters were Hispanic at the time), Nickelodeon was preparing to debut three Hispanic-themed shows: Dora, The Brothers Garcia, and Taina. The counterprogramming garnered tons of free media attention, all of it laudatory, in the days leading up to Dora’s launch. Three-year-olds, of course, aren’t generally preoccupied with racial sensitivity, but the network was targeting parents, not kids.

Nickelodeon also saturated its airwaves with ads for Dora, particularly during Blue’s Clues, the then-cornerstone of Nick Jr., its branded programming block for tykes between 2 and 5. The ads touted an interactive online adventure: Viewers were urged to visit the Nick Jr. Web site and “help Dora make it from her online area to their televisions in time for her debut.” Parents who helped their children log on discovered that the Nick Jr. site was tailored as much for adults as for children, with advice on kid-friendly travel destinations and ideas for successful play dates. The Dora adverpuzzle attracted 50,000 unique visitors per day at its peak, and the Dora premiere was the most-watched series launch ever for Nick Jr.

Like all Nick Jr. shows, Dora’s audience is notable for its extremely high “co-viewing” numbers—that is, the percentage of households in which an adult between the ages of 18 and 49 watches the show with a child.So, it was critical that Dora have an educational veneer—the show introduces kids to the basics of both computer-assisted research and Spanish—in order to be palatable enough to parents. And it’s certainly easier to tolerate than the didactic, cloying Barney and Friends, which has been in a ratings tailspin since Dora’s debut. Though it burned brightly for a spell, the Barney franchise waned too quickly because parents couldn’t stand that purple dinosaur, no matter how much youngsters insisted on his genius.

Approximately a quarter of Dora’s revenues has come from sales of videotapes and DVDs, and that share is likely to grow over the next few years: According to Nielsen Home Media Research, kid videos—kidvids, in industry speak—will account for close to 30 percent of home-video sales by 2007, up from 17 percent today. Nickelodeon sensed this trend soon after Dora’s debut and has been particularly savvy in taking advantage of it. The network wasted little time in bringing the show to the video market. The franchise’s first video was released in June of 2001, less than a year after the show’s debut—at the time, an unusually rapid extension of a kidvid franchise. Nickelodeon and Paramount Home Entertainment, which distributes Viacom home-video properties, also decided against the usual tactic of repackaging Dora episodes that had already aired, instead opting to debut fresh episodes on video first. So, if a child has a jones for a new Dora adventure, he or she has two choices: Beg mommy or daddy for the latest video, or wait 12 to 14 weeks until the episodes featured on the video finally air on TV.

The begging often works, in part because the Dora videos—like most kid-oriented video fare—are priced so cheaply; new VHS releases often retail for under $7, 30 to 50 percent less than new Hollywood titles. Companies like Paramount Home Entertainment understand that around half of kidvid sales are made at supermarkets and drugstores, where price is of paramount concern to shoppers, and where many less-affluent families do their video shopping. As a result, the cheaper VHS format remains extremely popular in the kidvid market, accounting for over 40 percent of sales. The Silly Fiesta tape, for example, is the fifth-best-selling VHS release in America, and the other titles in the top 10 are for the most part kid-friendly Hollywood blockbusters such as Shark Tale and Racing Stripes.

But Paramount Home Entertainment also had the foresight to begin the DVD migration earlier than its chief kidvid rival, HIT Entertainment, which owns the Thomas & Friends and Bob the Builder franchises. Within a year of bringing the franchise to video, the company began the migration to DVD, despite industry concerns that cheaper VHS tapes would rule the roost for several years more. The trends obviously broke in Dora’s favor, with the advent of $29 DVD players. The hardware’s increasing portability has also been critical: A quarter of the nation’s 80 million DVD households now own portable players—often in a laptop, but increasingly embedded in the headrest of a minivan. Sales of rear-seat entertainment systems broke the $500 million mark last year, double the figure from 2000. And in a 2004 Nissan survey of minivan owners, 11 percent of the respondents said they had DVD-equipped rides.

The result of this explosion in DVD player affordability and portability is gangbusters sales for Dora DVDs—they’re up 80 percent over the last year. HIT Entertainment, meanwhile, now admits that it’s been slow to digitize its video properties and is playing catch-up in making its extensivecatalogue available in the newer format. (The struggling company, which has also tried in vain to freshen up its Barney franchise by giving the dinosaur a laptop, was sold last month for $1.1 billion, and subsequently delisted from the London Stock Exchange.) So, when it comes to selecting a DVD to keep Junior’s yap shut on long car trips, a Dora title is the choice far more often than a Thomas & Friends offering. And while he checks out the DVD, there’s a chance the young viewer is wearing a $7.95 Dora baseball cap, and drinking juice from a 6-ounce spillproof Dora trainer cup.