By Bill Wilson
BBC News Online business reporter
Where Bob leads other children's characters hope to follow
To an outsider the world of children's television may seem a cosy and familiar universe, if a little boisterous at times.
Characters like Hit Entertainment's Bob the Builder have gone beyond their popularity with children to become part of the national consciousness, releasing records and achieving a cult following.
Meanwhile, the Teletubbies have recently been named among the 50 most influential UK television shows.
And old favourites like Noddy and Postman Pat have taken on new leases of life, arousing feelings of nostalgia in adults of a certain age.
All, therefore, are international global brands generating millions of pounds for their owners.
Indeed, behind the cuddly animated scenes there is a frantic world of football-style transfer-deals, spurned moves, money-spinning overseas ventures, and lucrative merchandising rights.
The announcement that the Tweenies, a children's favourite airing on the BBC, are to be "transferred" - from producers Tell-Tale to their new owners Entertainment Rights - is only the latest development in a busy 12 months.
Media companies, it seems, are gradually coming to realise that if they can develop an identifiable children's brand then there is money to be made not only from selling the actual programme, but also from licensing arrangement for merchandise and DVDs.
"People are now beginning to understand the value of children's television brands," Patrick Yau, media analyst at Bridgewell Securities, told BBC News Online.
"Hit Entertainment have been out there with their model for some time now, and it is dawning on others that having a strong international brand is a means of making money - from spin-offs, not just from the sale of the programmes."
Mr Yau said there was cash to be made from books, DVDs, CDs, and other merchandising items such as toys.
"Everyone is looking at is to get a big international brand out there. Once you have done that you can sit back and let the royalties come in.
"It is a very-high margin way of building your profitability."
The new team at Chorion gets ready to take on the world
Hence Basil Brush, in the guise of owners Entertainment Rights (ER), spent a couple of months stalking Noddy, in the form of his masters Chorion, before being seen off earlier this year.
After some sparring, Chorion decided ER's £43.5m ($79.3m) offer was "not in the best interests" of its shareholders.
Shortly after freeing himself from the posh fox's clutches, Noddy then motored into China, to make friends with its 95 million under-five year olds.
Chorion awarded the Chinese rights for Noddy books, toys, videos and DVDs, as well as educational and language products, to Beijing- based Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press (FLTRP).
Buoyed by this success, Chorion also went on to pay £28m to buy another group of popular children's characters, Mr Men and Little Miss, from previous owners the Hargreaves Organisation and Mr Films.
"The hardest thing is to develop a new successful children's character from scratch. You may well get a better return from buying an established children's character than from developing your own," explains Mr Yau.
"Therefore all this recent interest in acquiring established brands."
Ironically, after blazing a trail for others to follow, this spring Hit Entertainment reported a 29% drop in income.
The firm, which owns Thomas the Tank Engine as well as Bob the Builder, said its half-year pre-tax profits before exceptional items fell 5.9% to £24m.
Hit said the lower availability of Bob the Builder products over Christmas was partly to blame for the sales drop. However, it believes a planned relaunch of Bob in 2005 would see him regain his former popularity.
Over the years the character has supported dozens of merchandising spin-offs, from a chart-topping record to toys to duvet covers.
Time-traveller: Muffin the mule will return next year in animated form
But Mr Yau says: "Bob the Builder is still the international success story that others look to and hope to emulate. He has been branded in a way that does not tie him down to the UK."
Meanwhile characters like Postman Pat and Bagpuss have taken on a new lease of life, and Maverick Entertainment hopes to do the same with 58-year-old Muffin the Mule.
Maverick has been commissioned by the BBC to produce 26 ten minute episodes of Muffin, the first children's TV character back in 1946, for 2005.
However, even Mr Yau says: "I am not too sure what the appeal of reviving Muffin the Mule for the 21st Century might be.
"I can see Basil Brush has a certain English and nostalgic appeal, but I will be very interested to see if Muffin the Mule catches on."