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Saddle Club rides away with the hearts of the tweens


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Saddle Club rides away with the hearts of the tweens

Before she sat down to write the first in her series of "tween" girl novels, The Saddle Club author, Bonnie Bryant, set out to understand her market.

She talked to girls aged five to 12, and soon discovered some patterns. Most young girls relate to being in a group of about three great friends orbited by someone they think of as "a bit of a bitchand her friend".

The New York author stumbled on a surprising gap in the reading market. For generations, young girls have eaten up books about horses, but modern publishers weren't putting out good pony material.

Now Bryant's careful homeworkinspired by the former book editor's need to boost her income after her husband's deathis merchandising gold.

First, the books became the TV seriesbrought to ABC-TV by Nick McMahon, chief of Crawford Productions (working with partners Protocol Entertainment of Canada). Shot in the Yarra Valley in Melbourne's east, the co-production about a bunch of horsey girls and their ponies aired in 2001, and quickly became for pre-pubescent girls what Sex and the City had been for their mothers. Unmissable.

The TV show was just the beginning. Saddle Club toys, stickers, board games, drink bottles and clothes, among other items, hit the shops only a few months ago but have quickly become must-haves among "tweens", the emerging retail power demographic.

Last month, one of the 120 tie-in items, the metre-high Saddle Club horse, sold all 9000 units in 10 days.The second run of the horses, which occupied a tiny advertising spot in a Target catalogue, sold out in five days.

In Australia, fans have so far spent $30 million of their pocket moneyor their parents' moneyon Saddle Club stuff.

The program had almost no early marketing, yet the video of the first series became the ABC shops' top seller last year. And in the US, where the show screens on cable TV, the video and DVD sold 400,000 copies.

Nick McMahon, the executive producer, says a strong part of the success is Bryant's insight into girls. He hears all the time about how girls are playing Saddle Club scenarios with their friendstaking turns to be the baddie. In the series, the bitch is rich girl Veronica, an utter snob who thinks she is too good for the little club formed by the three "nice" girls.

Veronica is played by the now 16-year-old Melbourne actress Heli Simpson. In real life, she's delightful, but admits the first question anyone asks her friends is along the lines of "What is she really like?" She is an eloquent spokeswoman for the showthe second series of which goes to air from September 15. "Being a horse person myself, and being obsessed for a time with horses, I would have adored to have been watching a show like that," she says.

What role she and the other young stars play in the mooted third series is under discussion. Crawford Productions has asked fans via the show's website if they think the girls are getting too old for the original scenario.

There is a movie in the pipeline that would give producers a chance to introduce new, younger characters. The success of the program is one bright spot in an Australian TV drama scene recently painted as challenged. This week Channel Seven reversed a decision to proceed the country-life series Always Greener, and Channel Ten's promising new series, Crashburn, is struggling.

But everybody loves The Saddle Club, even the parents who, McMahon says, complain it "has cost me a fortune". Another drawback is that they are no doubt battling to get the catchy theme out of their heads.

September 6, 2003
The Age