Putting the ‘Syn’ into Synergy

by: Eileen R. Meehan / Louisiana State University

I beat the Rugrats to Paris by two years. In December, 1998, I was on an Air France flight from Houston to Paris. Rosy-fingered Eos was rising over Europe and our French flight attendants were distributing breakfasts. In the middle of the tray was a large container of applesauce whose foil cover was emblazoned with the faces of the Rugrats plugging their first movie. Like dozens of fellow travelers, I ripped off the cover, squenched it in my fist, and thereby helped delay another incursion of US corporate cultural imperialism into France. At least, that’s what I like to think.

The Rugrats are a good example of how almost any television program can become a franchise when the intellectual property is owned by a transindustrial media conglomerate. Creators Gsapo Csupo and Arlene Klasky pitched The Rugrats to Viacom, which acquired the property. The series premiered on Viacom’s Nickelodeon cable channel starting in 1991, running on Nick’s daytime schedule targeting children. Around 1994, Viacom reran it on the evening schedule targeting nostalgic but cool adults. Viacom built its Nick at Nite operation on such recirculation of television programs, relying on adult audiences to read old texts or texts meant for children in a different manner. That’s one form of synergy and it encourages the creation of new programs that are designed as polysemic and targeted for multiple types of consumers currently demanded by advertisers.

Another form of synergy involves moving the same symbolic universe intact across different media. (I’m looking for a term to describe this form of synergy and would appreciate suggestions.) Using this form of synergy, Viacom moved The Rugrats from television into film with The Rugrats Movie (1998). Two filmed sequels were made: Rugrats in Paris (2000) and Rugrats Go Wild! (2003). The last brought together the Rugrats and Viacom’s Wild Thornberrys, a Nick cartoon featuring a nuclear family. (The Internet Movie Database identifies the working title as Rugrats Meet the Wild Thornberrys.)

All this synergy allowed Viacom to ensure that its multiple operations would have recognizable products. Let’s take Rugrats in Paris as our core example and consider some of the products derived from it. Four products involved repackaging: taking all or part of the core product and generating ‘new’ products that reproduce some or all of the experience of the original. The film Rugrats in Paris was repackaged as a video and DVD — a fairly direct process in which the original product undergoes very little manipulation. More manipulation is involved in generating Rugrats in Paris: The Movie Storybook and the CD soundtrack. Storybooks typically use sections of the storyboard and script; soundtrack CDs use a film’s musical soundtrack. In both story books and CD soundtracks, the point is to reiterate the film, to promote the film, and to earn revenues for the film’s product line. It’s worth noting that Viacom had operations repackaging films as DVDs and videos (Paramount Home Entertainment), publishing books (Simon & Schuster), and renting DVDs and videos (Blockbuster).

Viacom also owned television venues, giving it the opportunity to recirculate Rugrats in Paris across its pay channels, digital channels, basic cable channels, and its broadcast networks, UPN and CBS. In recirculation, a product moves from one venue to another like from theaters to pay channels to basic channels to networks. Multiple recirculations fill the schedules of different venues with internally owned products. Viacom’s nostalgia operations — the TV Land cable channel and the Nick at Nite programming block — reposition very old products as pop culture classics.

Another form of synergy is recycling: incorporating parts of one product into another as with Viacom’s The Making of the Rugrats in Paris. Like any ‘making of,’ this one lifted bits of the Paris film and placed them in a new context. I don’t know if Viacom ran The Making of the Rugrats in Paris on its pay channels, which is standard industry practice. The piece did run as an episode on the VH1 series Behind the Movie, thus updating that channel’s targeted 18-49 year old audience on a film targeted for children. The Making of the Rugrats in Paris was subsequently released on video — another example of repackaging.

Finally, I’d like to go back to the original Rugrats and note one more type of synergy: spin offs. As everybody knows, these are television series derived from previous series. They typically maintain the armature of the original’s symbolic universe and one or more of the original characters. But, while keeping the same cultural rules, assumptions, presumptions, values, narrative structures, and character types, spin offs move to a new fictive site. For the Rugrats, the idea was floated in the special Rugrats: All Growed Up (2001). The premise was that the Rugrats had, as the title suggests, gotten older. Their post-Rugrat adventures were then presented in the 2003 series All Grown Up on Nick.

There is another type of synergy that Viacom has yet to apply to the Rugrats: redeployment. That is where the armature of a symbolic universe is lifted, emptied of its original characters, and used to generate an entirely new — yet, totally familiar — series. Having bought Paramount and its Star Trek franchise in 1993, Viacom has experience in redeployment from its Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Imagine what could it do with Rugrats!

Oh — on my return flight originating in Paris, I was given two pleasant meals, neither involving licensed cartoon characters. I like to think of that as a gift. Viva la France!

Rugrats on Nick
Paramount Home Entertainment

Please feel free to comment.


  • The cloudy meanings of buzzwords (especially those I associate with the business world) have long drawn my ire, so I was initially resistant to Meehan’s cogent breakdown of the concept of synergy. However, her Rugrats example gives me a reason to newly appreciate the word and its possible real meanings.

    I am led to think of a few ways in which other media texts-cum-brands pervade my own life. As a new fan of Buffy (at one time aired on UPN), I could avail myself of the dozen or more titles Simon & Schuster has published, even though I have no desire to read Buffy. However, as most of the series I watch are not excessively franchised (yet), forgive me for finding a more egregious example in Shrek 2.

    I managed to miss the promotional onslaught for the film…that is, until in one week I bought a package of Shrek M&Ms and received my next Netflix movie in a puke-green envelope. Film cross-promotion is nothing new, of course, and the latter promo makes sense at least, but did Shrek eat M&Ms or something? Do the Rugrats eat applesauce? Are these repackagings thematically consistent with the original media product, or merely another way for brands to seep into our consciousness? Even if these cross-promotions are indeed related to a character’s actions (see Reese’s Pieces and E.T.), does that make it OK? The issue of series and characters’ association with particular brands beyond their own product-brand seems increasingly relevant as more and more companies pay to have their products inserted directly into television texts.

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