Ragdoll Productions Ltd. History

Address:
11 Chapel Street
Straford-Upon-Avon
Warwickshire, CV37 6EO
United Kingdom

Telephone: 44 1789 404100
Fax: 44 1789 404136

Website:
Private Company
Incorporated: 1984
Employees: 150 (est.)
Sales: $50 million (2002 est.)
NAIC: 512110 Motion Picture and Video Production

Company Perspectives:

Creativity is nurtured when children's imaginations take wing. Ragdoll believes that play with the imagination is central to all development and all learning. The exciting medium that is television allows us to engage children imaginatively in new and different ways. Television programmes can also be the trigger for all kinds of additional imaginative play in other media. In the process of making work for children, Ragdoll believes it is only by observing the natural responses of children themselves that we can understand how our work should proceed. Our task as content providers is constantly to review how the imaginative use of all media can contribute to children's creative and constructive play.

Key Dates:

1984:
Anne Wood founds Ragdoll Productions.
1985:
Pob's Programme premieres in England.
1990:
Rosie and Jim premieres in England.
1993:
Tots TV premieres in England.
1996:
Tots TV premieres in the United States on PBS.
1997:
Teletubbies premieres in England.
1998:
Teletubbies premieres in the United States on PBS.

Company History:

Ragdoll Productions Ltd., is a United Kingdom-based children's media company, best known as the creators of the television show Teletubbies. The program, produced in conjunction with the British Broadcasting Corporation, is shown throughout the world, appearing in more than 120 countries in 41 different languages. Ragdoll holds the exclusive rights to Teletubbies in the Americas. In addition to video production, the company has also branched into book publishing and audio, music, and theater production.

Ragdoll's Founder Teaches School Until the Mid-1960s

Ragdoll Productions was founded by Anne Wood, who was born in England in 1937. She taught English at a secondary school for several years, then in the mid-1960s quit her post to raise a family with her husband Barrie, ultimately having two children. While teaching, she became dissatisfied with many books that were intended for children but reflected more of an adult sensibility and did little to stimulate a child's imagination. She established the first Children's Book Group in England, which allowed parents and other adults interested in children's literature to share ideas and promote books. To support this effort, in 1965 she founded a magazine, Books for Your Children, which recommended books and authors to parents and children, as well as to school librarians and teachers. The Children's Book Group was also instrumental in the creation of other book groups, which in 1968 led to the foundation of an umbrella organization, the Federation of Children's Book Groups. Long after Wood ceased playing an active role in the book group movement, both the magazine, renamed Carousel, and the Federation continued to operate and serve a valuable function in British children's literature.

In 1976, Wood turned to television when she was approached by Yorkshire Television, a regional operation established in 1968, to apply her magazine concept to a weekly program about children's books called The Book Tower, which would win a number of major awards. Rather than using television solely to promote children's literature, Wood next became involved in producing children's programming that reflected the storytelling virtues she valued so much in children's books. She produced a television drama for young children based on the book Ragdolly Anna Stories by Jean Kenward. The choice was influenced by her daughter's attachment to a special ragdoll, which would also one day provide the inspiration for the name of her own production company. Ragdolly Anna proved to be very popular and was an important step in Wood's evolving television career.

In 1982, Wood was named Head of Children's Programs of TV-am, a British "breakfast television" station that generally operated from 6:00 to 9:25 in the morning. The idea for such a service originated in early 1980 when the Independent Broadcasting Authority began taking applications for this previously unfilled airtime. The winning bid, promoting a breezy news format similar to America's Today Show or Good Morning America, came from TV-am, backed by a group that included David Frost, a television personality well known on both sides of the Atlantic. BBC then announced it would also offer news-oriented programming during the early morning time slot with a show called Breakfast Time, which began broadcasting on January 17, 1983. Instead of being a serious news program, as expected, "Breakfast Time" took a lighter approach and offered direct competition to TV-am's proposed Good Morning Britain. TV-am planned to debut in May 1983, but moved up it launch date to February 1, 1983. Rushed on the air, TV-am quickly stumbled: ratings floundered and finances became uncertain. Lighter fare was introduced, improving ratings somewhat, but it was Wood who proved to be instrumental in saving TV-am from collapse. In April 1983, she introduced Roland Rat Superstar, the creation of puppeteer David Claridge, as a way to attract children home during vacation breaks. Roland was rude and loud, and although he and his puppet cohorts jarred the nerves of many parents, he became a national phenomenon, resulting in two hit records for Roland and the sale of an untold amount of merchandise, as well as a dramatic increase in ratings for TV-am's Good Morning Britain. In addition, Wood produced a popular Sunday morning magazine format show for pre-school children, Rub a Dub Tub, an experience that reinforced her desire to provide quality television for young viewers.

Despite Roland's popularity, TV-am was still losing money. An Australian investor brought in Bruce Gyngell to head the service, cut costs, and make it profitable. Gyngell was a longtime veteran of television (in 1957, he was the first person to appear on Australian TV). He was willing to take chances but was also strong-willed and easily fell out with subordinates. One of those with whom he crossed swords was Wood. According to her version of events, she was "thrown out" of the company. Gyngell went on to make TV-am a highly profitable venture before its demise at the end of 1992. Roland's star burned bright, but like many another superstar burned out quickly. Subsequently, Anne Wood struck out on her own.

Anne Wood Founds Ragdoll Productions in 1984

Wood accepted a commission from Channel 4 in 1984 to create a children's television program and as a result established Ragdoll Productions in Stratford-upon-Avon. From TV-am she took Robin Stevens, a puppeteer who had collaborated with her on Rub a Dub Tub. Together they began to develop a magazine format show, Pob's Programme, linked together by a monkey sock puppet character named Pob and featuring celebrity guest stars who participated in the show by following clues left in a garden by the puppet. Pob, according to the show's conceit, interrupted normal transmission, then announced himself by knocking and writing his name on the screen. The latter piece of business was inspired by Wood's observation of a child using his breath to fog a train window then tracing his finger in the condensation. It was a difficult feat to accomplish with a puppet, so that many parents believed Pob was actually spitting on the television and writing his name in saliva, resulting in a mild controversy when a number of children imitated the character at home. Nevertheless, Pob and his cast of characters, regular features, and animation proved popular with British children. The show premiered in 1985, and over the course of three years Ragdoll produced 52 30-minute episodes of Pob's Programme.

Pob established Ragdoll as a viable production company, but Wood was much better prepared to create children's programming than she was to run a small business. To supplement her limited knowledge of business basics, she took a local college course on how to run a shop. Although Ragdoll was not as profitable as it might have been under more seasoned leadership, it made money, and more importantly it continued to make new children's television shows. Wood turned to ragdolls as characters for the next program that her production company developed. Rosie and Jim, intended for children two to eight years old, chronicled the adventures of two ragdolls who traveled on a boat with a singer/songwriter in search of inspiration. Unlike the audience, he was unaware that Rosie and Jim had the ability to come to life. Joined by a duck character (named Duck), they invariably fell into mischief. By the end of each episode, order was restored and a new song, inspired by the day's events, capped the program.

Introduced in 1990, Rosie and Jim, was more than just a second popular program to the credit of Ragdoll. It was instrumental in broadening the production company's revenue streams. With VCR's now a common household device, Ragdoll began to take full advantage of the growing market for children's videos. Moreover, Rosie and Jim offered a wide range or other merchandising opportunities: from ragdolls and toys to apparel. The company ultimately opened its own shop in Stratford where merchandise based on its characters could be sold. Moreover, a play area for children allowed Wood and her colleagues to observe their audience and make notes on their reactions to company products.

Next to be developed by Ragdoll was Brum, the adventures of an automobile character. It quickly became a hit in Britain with both viewers and merchandisers. Ragdoll then created Tots TV, conceived by Wood and written by Robin Stevens and Andrew Davenport, who also played two of the show's three tot puppets, Tom and Tiny. In essence, the tots lived in a secret house where they could spy on the outside world. It was a live action, 15-minute program filmed on location, and the first mainstream British children's show to expose pre-school children to a second language, French. Tots TV first aired in Britain in January 1993, and three years later came to America through the auspices of New York-based The Itsy Bitsy Entertainment Company, whose CEO, Kenn Viselman, was known for the highly successful merchandising of Thomas the Tank Engine. Rather than opting for commercial television, he found a home for Tots TV on PBS, highly regarded for its lineup of quality children's programming. A number of changes were effected to make the show suitable for American television: episodes were lengthened to 30 minutes, the second language was changed from French to Spanish, and voices were redubbed with American accents rather than British. On the merchandising side, the show launched a Web site, home video sales, and a toy line.

Teletubbies Concept Developed in Mid-1990s

While Tots TV made its debut in America in October 1996, Ragdoll was preparing for the British launch of a new program: Teletubbies. It originated from an idea of one of the Tots, Andrew Davenport, who was also a trained speech therapist. He had an idea for a sitcom aimed at seven-year-olds that never panned out. Nevertheless, Wood latched onto two of Davenport's characters: spacemen, one more courageous than the other, who try to make sense of everyday household objects. Often surprised, they easily fell down and when worried hugged one another for comfort. As Wood and Davenport developed this germ of an idea into a fully realized program concept, the characters doubled in number to four and went from looking like NASA astronauts to large roly-poly characters with television screens in their tummies on which films would be projected, hence Teletubbies. The target audience was children one to two years of age, and the intent was to create a program about play. In a manner similar to children, the Teletubbies (Po, Laa-Laa, Dipsy, and Tinky Winky) simply lived for play. Unlike many of Wood's earlier low-budget efforts, Teletubbies was an expensive proposition, from the outset intended for an international audience and requiring deep-pocketed partners. Wood insisted on a life-size film set for the show, requiring millions of dollars to landscape a six-acre Teletubbyland and construct a Tubbytronic Superdome. To help bankroll and develop the concept, Ragdoll turned to BBC Children's Programming, BBC Education, and BBC Worldwide. Because BBC did not sell advertising, in order to make Teletubbies a successful venture it had to rely on merchandise sales and international licensing of the program. The payoff for Ragdoll was expected to be drawn from the retention of the show's rights in the Americas.

The show's creators had high aspirations for Teletubbies. They relied on contemporary theories about how children learn to speak, interviewed nursery school teachers, and observed children in group situations in order to make Teletubbies an effective way to prepare its audience for preschool. The characters with the television screens on their tummies were also intended to help young children to accept an increasingly media-saturated world, preparing them for life in the global village. As soon as Teletubbies premiered in Britain in the spring of 1997, however, it became the object of criticism by those who challenged the assumptions of the show. Ragdoll was accused of taking part in the on-going "dumbing down" of television and of designing the show more as a merchandising vehicle than a true educational program. Critics focused on the show's infantile dialogue and repetition, maintaining that far from helping children to develop language skills, Teletubbies retarded speech development. Moreover, they suggested that the show helped to make children more dependent on the media, dismissing the idea of the need to make them comfortable with technology.

Despite these very public concerns, the show quickly became a hit in Britain, and the four Teletubbies gained star status, becoming known as the "New Fab Four." Many parents complained about the repetitious nature of the show, yet they also spent millions of dollars buying Teletubbies' merchandise for their children. To protect the reputation of the show, the actors playing the four Teletubbies were forbidden to grant interviews, and one, a Shakespearean actor named Dave Thompson who played Tinky Winky, was fired after it was learned he had danced in public wearing only a balloon. Ragdoll and BBC also had to contend with reports that Teletubbies was also proving to be popular with the twenty-somethings of the club set, who watched the program while coming down from the drug Ecstasy, and that the gay community adopted purse-carrying Tinky Winky as an icon.

Ragdoll and its U.S. partner Itsy Bitsy sold Teletubbies to PBS in a deal reported to be worth $1.6 million. Toymaker Hasbro also geared up to introduce an extensive line of toys, games, and puzzles for the market. In addition, Itsy Bitsy lined up deals for books, videos, and other merchandise. Teletubbies premiered in the United States in 1998, backed by a considerable amount of advance billing that resulted in the show becoming an immediate hit. It gained additional publicity, not entirely welcomed by the producers, when the Reverend Jerry Falwell, a nationally known evangelical, maintained that Tinky Winky was championing tolerance of a gay life style. The controversy soon passed, and Teletubbies reception in the United States mirrored its success in England: cranky parents tolerated the show and bought large quantities of merchandise. It was a lucrative business for Ragdoll and Itsy Bitsy, and they were very protective of their franchise. In 1999, they sued Wal-Mart Stores, which had been selling four figurines that closely resembled the Teletubbies, called Bubbly Chubbies. The mass merchandiser quickly settled the suit by pulling the items from the shelves and destroying the inventory.

Ragdoll turned its attention to producing its first animation project, Badjelly the Witch, a 30-minute program based on a Spike Milligan's 1973 children's book of the same name. After failing to interest the BBC in co-producing, Wood elected to have Ragdoll go it alone, starting pre-production work in 1998. When completed, Badjelly the Witch premiered in England on BBC1 on Christmas Day 2000. Subsequent broadcasts and video distribution deals were set up around the world. In the meantime, in February 2001 the company announced that it would stop producing new episodes of Teletubbies. Nevertheless, Ragdoll had made enough episodes to ensure than the program would continue to be broadcast for many years to come. The agreement with PBS, for instance, lasted until 2008. Although Ragdoll's profits were reported to have slumped in 2001, Wood maintained that the company was simply investing in new technology and on research and development. Clearly Teletubbies had established Ragdoll as a production company to be reckoned with in children's programming. Wood's belief in the future of the company was supported by her decision to sever its ties with Itsy Bitsy in the fall of 2001. Several months later Ragdoll opened an office in New York to handle merchandising and programming in the western hemisphere.

Principal Competitors: AOL Time Warner; News Corp.; Viacom Inc.; The Walt Disney Company.

Further Reading:

  • Ballantyne, Helen, and Lindsay Percival-Straunik, "Success Is Child's Play," Director, June 1999, p. 104.
  • Britt, Ross, Chuck Ross, et al., "Teletubbies Are Coming: Brit Hit Sets U.S. Invasion," Advertising Age, January 19, 1998, p. 12.
  • Brunton, Michael, "Ga-Ga in Wonderland," Time, October 6, 1997.
  • "Ragdoll Facing Threat of Boycott," Coventry Evening Telegraph, July 24, 2002, p. 15.
  • Robins, Jane, "From Ragdoll to Riches Via Tubbyland," Independent, April 30, 1999, p. 8.
  • Sweet, Matthew, "A Mother Who's Always There for Her Tubbies," Independent Sunday, April 25, 1999, p. 4.
  • Wolcott, Jennifer, "Time for Teletubbies," Christian Science Monitor, April 10, 1998, p. B1.

Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 51. St. James Press, 2003.