Over the decades, TV shows have inspired plenty of toys, but nothing quite like this before. Mattel and ABC have teamed up to launch a new, Shark Tank-like reality competition series, The Toy Box, in which toy inventors vie for approval from a group of toy experts, followed by a precocious panel of kid judges. At the season’s end, Mattel will manufacture the winning toy, which will be sold exclusively at Toys “R” Us stores and on the retailer’s website right after the finale airs.
But before The Toy Box can launch what Mattel hopes is its next hit toy, it has to be successful as a new series. To draw in family audiences, producers mashed up elements of two hit shows: Shark Tank (in the first round, the inventors hope for a thumbs up from mentors like Dylan’s Candy Bar owner Dylan Lauren and Pixar creative director of consumer products Jen Tan) and Little Big Shots (the outspoken, unabashed young judges in Round 2 include Sophia Grace Brownlee and Noah Ritter, both of whom broke out on The Ellen DeGeneres Show). “It’s celebrating invention, creativity, childhood and nostalgia, and everyone can relate to that,” said showrunner Susan House. “It’s not a mean show. Even though there’s only one winner, everything is constructive criticism: ‘Oh, what if you just tweaked that?’”
Hundreds of inventors applied for their shot at toy glory; only 35 made the cut. “A big selling point for the inventors was the ability to get their toy in front of Mattel—even if they weren’t going to win—just to be noticed and be seen,” said executive producer Michael Rourke, also CEO of production company Hudsun Media, which developed The Toy Box with Electus and Mattel before bringing it to ABC.
Mattel and ABC parent company Disney are coming full circle with the series, which premieres April 7, not coincidentally right before Shark Tank. Decades ago, Mattel’s founders “essentially bet the future of the company on television advertising for The Mickey Mouse Club,” said Mattel’s chief content officer Catherine Balsam-Schwaber, also an executive producer on the show. Now Mattel hopes its TV gamble is even half as successful as that one was.
Toy experts applaud the new spotlight the show will put on the toy industry, which operates largely anonymously. “I like the idea that it’s going to create an emotional connection to a product, because you’re going to care about the person who created the product,” said Richard Gottlieb, co-founder of consulting agency Global Toy Experts. “You know who wrote a famous book, you know who wrote a song, but very rarely do you know the names of people who invented some of the most important games and toys that we have.”
Even though Mattel was on the hook to make the winning toy, the decision rested solely in the hands of the four kid judges, who ranged in age from 8 to 14. “They took their job very, very seriously,” said Modern Family star and Toy Box host Eric Stonestreet, who drew upon his adolescence as a clown performing at kids birthday parties when he worked with the show’s judges. “They knew they were there to determine someone’s potential livelihood.”
But the quartet will also help shape Mattel’s future beyond this one toy. “To be able to see our business from a kid’s perspective is a great opportunity,” said Balsam-Schwaber of the judges’ actions on the show. “What do they respond to? Are there tidbits of those ideas that we should consider in the future?” (Mattel also retained the right to distribute any toy that appears on the show, even if it’s not the winner.)
While The Toy Box is a brilliant branding opportunity for Mattel—the set includes an extensive collection of the company’s Barbie dolls and photos of other Mattel toys, while the judges’ verdict is rendered via its Magic 8 Ball—it will still take a bit of luck for the show’s winning toy to find a foothold in the marketplace. “Will it be successful after the initial surge? That’s what’s going to be really interesting to watch,” said Gottlieb. “Let’s not all assume that just because a toy wins, it is going to be popular. We are frequently wrong!”