Bob the Builder's position as Britain's leading pre-school children's character is being threatened by a farmyard upstart called Tractor Tom.
The US toy giant Hasbro has just signed a deal to sell merchandise based on the Tractor Tom cartoon series. Meanwhile, in the UK, a healthy order book for the toys' first Christmas suggests that sales are likely to beat the records set by Bob the Builder in his first year.
The Hasbro deal comes after months of talks involving the maker of the Tractor Tom cartoon, Contender Entertainment, and the top three toy manufacturers in the US, Mattel, Hasbro and the Japanese group Bandai.
Ira Hernowitz, senior vice-president of marketing at Hasbro's pre-school division, said: "We were immediately struck by the thematic farm play pattern, charming characters and adorable vehicle play of the Tractor Tom property. We think the fun and magic of the Tractor Tom characters will translate beautifully into a toy line that pre-schoolers will embrace."
The deal has been signed despite no US TV network having taken up Tractor Tom so far. However, Contender is in talks with Nick Jr, the children's channel owned by Viacom, and the Disney Channel, and expects to secure a deal soon.
Richard Bridgwood, managing director of Contender, said the plan was to launch Tractor Tom products in the US next summer, though this may be delayed to tie in with the US network's programming schedule. Hasbro has been encouraged by the success of Tractor Tom in the UK, where orders for the toys are running at record levels despite relatively poor viewing figures for the series, which is being shown on Children's ITV. CiTV is seen in the industry as a weak player in the pre-school market, lagging behind the BBC, the market leader, and the fast-growing Five.
Vivid Imaginations, which makes Tractor Tom toys, has seen record orders for Christmas, with Argos recently upping its orders from 12,000 to 80,000.
Bob the Builder, made by Hit Entertainment and shown on the BBC, has been the major pre-school TV success of the past few years. Hit's shares have stormed ahead on the back of Bob but there are concerns in the City that he may have lost his appeal and sales could be slipping.
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