The 'Mighty Morphin Power Rangers' Just Turned 20 and Still Sells $80 Million in Toys
The mash-up of Japanese fight scenes and American actors has become a reliable moneymaker on cable -- and has racked up almost 1 billion views on YouTube.
This story first appeared in the Oct. 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
If, in the summer of 1993, you were to look at the crop of new kids programming and ask yourself which show was likely to become a successful franchise that would still be growing two decades later, executive producer Haim Saban's Mighty Morphin Power Rangers may not have seemed like the obvious choice. A mashup of footage from Toei's long-running Super Sentai series in Japan with new footage shot for American audiences, the series was unlike anything else on television at the time -- which made it all the more attractive to its core audience of preteens.
Shuki Levy worked closely with Saban to co-produce the early seasons of Power Rangers. Saban had discovered Super Sentai during a trip to Japan in the late 1980s and became convinced that its over-the-top appeal could be retooled for Western audiences. Elie Dekel, current president of Saban Brands, remembers that Saban and Levy were "pitching versions of this to TV networks for years, and each year, it'd get rejected and we'd go back to the drawing board and revise that pilot."
That run of rejections ended in 1993, when Fox offered the show a summer slot for a few weeks -- and the show become a smash hit almost immediately after its Aug. 28 debut. "By the time we had aired our third episode," Dekel says, "we were the most popular thing on the air." The audience for the show continued to grow, with the show averaging 6.9 million viewers by its second season.
The reason behind the immediate appeal of Power Rangers is obvious, according to Brian Casentini, Saban Brands' senior vp development and production. "These are superheroes in a full costume, including a helmet," he says. "It's far easier for a child -- or anybody -- to project themselves into that costume and imagine themselves as a Power Ranger than it is with Superman."
A successful line of toys and merchandise just made it easier for kids to complete their wish-fulfillment. "To be able to watch the show and then go and play it, either through role-play or through action figures, that's just a natural desire for children," Casentini continues. "Part of what makes the franchise so powerful is that they don't have to just watch it, they can play it." Enough kids wanted to pretend to be a Power Ranger that related toys broke sales records in the 1990s and continue to be a huge seller today. (Sales of Power Rangers toys generated $80 million in revenue in 2012 -- double what they made the previous year -- with the brand ranked 17th in terms of overall children's properties, according to analysts at the NPD Group.)
In 2001, Power Rangers was bought by the Walt Disney Co. as part of a $3.2 billion deal to acquire Saban's parent company, Fox Family Worldwide. Disney continued to produce the series for another nine years and, just as important, added the characters to theme parks around the world. But when Disney bought Marvel in 2009, Saban -- by this time, launching a new company, Saban Brands -- sensed an opportunity to reclaim his famous creation.
"There was absolutely risk and concern that it might not work," Dekel says today about Saban regaining the rights to the franchise with a view to relaunching it. "But we had this sense that if it's evergreen in Asia, where it started, it could be evergreen for us. We felt there was still an opportunity in there."
Partnering with Nickelodeon, Saban Brands revived the series to much acclaim (and an average of 2 million viewers each week, a significant increase from the previous season's 800,000) with 2011's Power Rangers Samurai. Casentini wasn't surprised by the continued success. "There's a proven formula that's clearly working here," he explains. "We inject heart and humor into this show, and we don't make it too scary. It's something that a young child can watch and not be frightened of. The monsters are wackier, they're in rubber costumes, it's not as threatening as some of the older superhero shows. We do that by design."
Despite purposeful adherence to a formula, Dekel believes that the show has managed to quietly reinvent itself with its revival. "When we think about the modern era for Power Rangers, now that we're in our third decade, we have this whole host of options through which to keep the brand vibrant, to keep the fans engaged, to introduce new fans," he says, pointing to original content produced by Saban for YouTube and other digital platforms as proof of widening the brand's appeal. "We release them quietly, but we're reaching about a billion views for this content."
Even as Saban Brands grows the appeal for Power Rangers, there's no chance the company will forget its core audience -- or the service it provides. "We can't fight the natural progression that occurs with a child," Casentini says. "What we can do is try our hardest to tell stories that resonate as old as we can get. Our core audience is [ages] 4 to 8, and then they graduate and move on. Power Rangers fundamentally remains every child's entry point into the superhero genre."
"We have every intention of producing many more years of Power Rangers," Dekel says. "We take a great sense of pride, a great sense of responsibility. We're working harder than ever to maintain this place in the marketplace and in the minds of young viewers and to perpetuate it moving forward."