Peter Orton: Media entrepreneur who made a global success of Bob the Builder

Peter Charles Orton, television executive and media entrepreneur: born Portsmouth 17 June 1943; programme executive, TIE 1967-69; international director of programming, Children's TV Workshop, New York 1969-72, vice-president for worldwide distribution 1974-82; founder, Sport on TV 1972-74; chief executive officer, Henson International TV 1982-89; chief executive, HiT Entertainment plc 1989-2001, executive chairman 2001-02, non-executive chairman 2003-05; CVO 2007; married 1972 Susan Stevenson (one son); died Wootton Bassett, Wiltshire 5 December 2007

Wednesday 12 December 2007 01:00

In a modern, globalised media environment, Peter Orton was the master salesman, recognising the value of television characters and programmes as commodities and turning them into hugely successful, profitable brands on screen and off. The flagship of his empire was the children's animation Bob the Builder, which came to the screen in 1999 and made his company millions of pounds, mostly through merchandising.

He started his company, HiT Entertainment, with a 300,000 overdraft, after leaving the American animation pioneer Jim Henson, for whom he had sold foreign rights to series such as Sesame Street, The Muppets and Fraggle Rock. These children's programmes created the mould from which Orton would shape his own business. In 1989, HiT was launched as a distributor of pre-school children's entertainment shows, eventually marketing characters such as Thomas the Tank Engine, Barney the purple dinosaur, Pingu and Angelina Ballerina.

"I have always been a salesman and I'm very proud of it," said Orton, who made no secret of the fact that he had never excelled academically at school.

Almost every other salesman I have ever met at some stage in their career starts to deny that's what they are. They want to be a COO or a CEO or something. The reality is that the salesman is the person who creates the business.

However, after developing HiT as a successful global distributor of established brands, Orton launched the company's own, led by an original character. One of his former Henson colleagues, Keith Chapman, had for a decade sat on an idea for a new children's television character, formed in his mind after seeing a JCB digger in the road outside his house in Wimbledon, London. Once he and his wife had three children he began to read them bedtime stories about a character on a construction site, which he himself wrote and illustrated.

Chapman then showed Orton three sketches as an idea for a television series and Bob the Builder was born, complete with yellow helmet, blue dungarees and the catchphrase, "Can we fix it?" Such has been the impact of the programme and character that many beyond the pre-school target audience know that the reply from Bob's friends and workmates is always, "Yes, we can." The stop-motion animation made its dbut on CBBC in 1999, with Bob voiced by the actor Neil Morrissey, and it became a global phenomenon in scores of versions tailored to individual markets. Toys and other merchandise followed, as well as a single which became the Christmas No 1 in 2000.

This firmly established HiT as a producer as well as distributor, and the company made other children's series such as Brambly Hedge, Pingu and Rubbadubbers. By 2003, it was generating annual revenues of 168m Bob the Builder accounting for 32.5m with the majority coming from merchandising.

It was a long way from Orton's relatively poor background in Portsmouth, where he was born in 1943, the son of a ship's steward. On leaving school at 16, Orton sold naval uniforms in the town. His talent for selling led him to the specialist footwear group Scholl Medical, then in 1967 to Television International Enterprises, where he bought programmes to be shown in the Middle East, Africa and the Caribbean. His first big success was in negotiating the rights for those countries to screen the 1970 World Cup, netting the company a 350,000 profit.

Success in those foreign markets led Orton to New York and to the post of international director of programming at the Children's Television Workshop, the non-profit organisation set up to launch the pioneering pre-school educational show Sesame Street, with Muppet characters by Jim Henson.

Although he left for a brief period between 1972 and 1974 to found a television sports packaging company, Sport on TV, Orton returned to the Children's Television Workshop as vice-president of its worldwide distribution arm. He remained in the post until 1982, when Henson started his own company, Henson International Television, with Orton as chief executive officer (until 1989). During this time, the Henson creative team moved to Britain, where The Muppet Show was produced for the ITV company ATV and became a global success, although ATV's own distribution arm, ITC, distributed it.

Muppet feature films and other television series such as Fraggle Rock followed, but in 1989 Henson entered into negotiations to sell his business to the Walt Disney Company. Devastated, Orton forged ahead with his own plans, buying the name Henson International Television, turning it into the British-based HiT Entertainment and launching it as a distribution business with the rights to Alvin & the Chipmunks and Postman Pat.

HiT's success spiralled: it began trading on the Alternative Investment Market in 1996 and, a year later, received a full listing on the London Stock Exchange. Then, in 1998, came the formation of its own HOT Animation studio, based in Manchester, to make Brambly Hedge, Percy the Park Keeper and Kipper.

Bob the Builder soon followed and the revenues from both the programme and its merchandising spin-offs about 1bn enabled HiT to buy the Britt Allcroft Company for 139 million and, with it, the rights to Thomas the Tank Engine, which had begun in 1945 as a series of books by the Rev W. Awdry and became an animated series four decades later. The programmes were expensive to make, but Orton and HiT found themselves fulfilling a demand for quality animation, boosted by the specialist children's channels CBBC, CBeebies, CiTV and Nickelodeon, with ever-increasing income from DVDs and merchandising.

In 2005, Orton sold his company to the private equity group Apax Partners for 489m, pocketing 30m himself. Last year, he organised the Children's Party at the Palace, a large event to mark the Queen's 80th birthday, featuring a host of characters from children's literature and culminating in a stage show broadcast live on BBC1. He was presented with a lifetime achievement award by Bafta in 2002 and was appointed CVO in 2007 for his contribution to children's literacy. In 2002, he was given an honorary doctorate from De Montfort University, Leicester.

After being diagnosed with neck cancer 11 years ago, he served as chairman of the Head and Neck Cancer Research Trust.

Anthony Hayward

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