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The Digital Skeptic: Moms Have an Ugly Toy Story for Ken and Barbie

An ugly toy story
For starters, research is confirming what any parent will tell you: Kids are living in a strange new digital content age where established brands are less important.

"American families see tablets as playmate, teacher and baby sitter," said a 2012 report from New York-based Nielsen. And this portable kids portal is essentially defined by the gobs of cheap content cash-strapped Internet companies are pouring into it.

In late 2012, Amazon (AMZN - Get Report) rolled out the Kindle FreeTime Unlimited, an all-you-can-eat kids tablet content buffet of mainline brands such as Sesame Street, Reading Rainbow, Nickelodeon and dozens more. All starting at just $3 a month -- a fraction of what cable or satellite TV charges for the same stuff.

This value-crushing wave in Kid's brands is further amplified by a new generation of youth-oriented digital entertainment options that -- get ready for this -- have no brands at all. The killer app is the addictive gaming environment called Minecraft, from Sweden's Mojang. This mostly self-provisioning virtual gaming platform opens most of the process of creating interactive experiences to the 40 million or so Minecraft-loving kids and young people who play it.

"We knew too well that if the Betty Ford Clinic opened a Minecraft wing, our son could be first on the list if we didn't stage our own intervention," wrote Pam Melyan-Bratton, a blogger on NJ.com, a large, mostly local content media service.

Toy company = Publishing 2.0
Toy giants are reacting as similarly threatened movie, publishing and music companies did a decade ago. They are rushing to new technological platforms and brands without truly considering the cost, long odds and low margins they face in new markets.

Mattel announced last week just such a new global game, cartoon and interactive franchise called Max Steel.

"The multiplatform action-adventure entertainment franchise will also introduce a dynamic Web destination, featuring rich content, including interactive gameplay ... action figures, vehicles, role play items and a diverse line of consumer products," the company news release said.

For sure, Max is kinda cool. I really do like the cartoon. But in the collapsing digital age, Max and Mattel must compete against the likes of Spider-Man, The Hunger Games, The Twilight Saga and Harry Potter, to name a few.

And all that, in turn, is under siege from a new generation of personal 3-D manufacturing options from companies such as MakerBot, Stratasys Systems and Desktop Factory. The new so-called 3D Cloud Printing Engine from France's Sculpteo, for example, allows any mom to build an intricately designed piece of plastic -- in other words, a toy -- for just a few bucks. And parents can even get paid for their trouble. The company is sponsoring something called the Made in 3D Challenge, in which winning designers can win an iPad.

All of which makes our toymaker moms queens of the next-gen toybox.

"It's kind of an interesting time, the shift between marketing giant products and an appreciation for locally made things, " is how O'Neil explained it to us.

Considering the Chinese consider it a curse to live in "interesting times," Barbie, Ken and the entire toy business may be soon considering new career options.

This commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet guest contributor program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of TheStreet or its management.
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