GARDABAER, Iceland (Reuters) - On a quiet Sunday in the “Lazy Town” warehouse, the man many of the world’s children know as Sportacus was working up some optimism for Iceland.
“The Icelandic people will have to take huge cuts in terms of salary, housing and lifestyle,” said entrepreneur Magnus Scheving — the brains and considerable energy behind the “Lazy Town” children’s television show that has run in close to 120 countries since Nickelodeon’s Nick Jr. channel aired it in 2004.
“We are going back 30 years in that sense, but we will rebound quickly,” he told Reuters in an interview.
His reaction to Iceland’s crisis was in character.
“Sportacus,” the show’s Web site says, “loves to see others succeed and is disappointed when they won’t even try. He looks beyond the status quo and believes there’s always a new, unique way to accomplish something. He’s a hero-for-all seasons, bringing vim and vigor to a world that’s sorely in need of it, an unstoppable wakeup force in a town that’s fast asleep.”
As the Icelandic economy melts down, “Lazy Town” — which directly employs just 50 people normally and 160 when the show is in production — has been bombarded with job applications, many from soon-to-be redundant bankers.
Scheving said he received over 250 work applications in three days in early October, when the country’s debt-heavy banks were sucked into the global financial crisis.
These are grim times for Iceland, which after rampant growth expects it could need to borrow some $24 billion over several years to ensure its financial system and currency can function properly again.
Its prime minister said in October the crisis could cost the country 85 percent of 2007 GDP.
The disaster has touched all 300,000 people in this Atlantic island nation, from former high-flyers at now-failed banks like Kaupthing and Glitnir to the fishermen who have traditionally kept Icelanders fed.
“Maybe 60 percent of the people in the United States don’t know the name of the banks that went down there,” Scheving said. “Every single child in Iceland knows what has happened. They are going to remember so it will not happen again.”
At 45, Scheving is arguably Iceland’s best-known celebrity after the singer Bjork. The enthusiasm of his ebulliently naive character for “sports candy” — fruit and vegetables — soothes parents’ consciences as their toddlers goggle at the derring-do of series villain, Robbie Rotten.
Constantly moving about even without his character’s trademark tight blue pants, Dali mustache and floppy hat, Scheving’s energy is reflected in the Sportacus persona.
The entrepreneur has won two European aerobics championships, hosted his own talk show, worked as a standup comedian, run his own health club, and for a time did a stint as a carpenter.
Among prizes the show has won is the Scandinavian Public Health Prize, in 2004, for motivating children to make healthy lifestyle choices.
And so far at least, “Lazy Town” — where the only really idle person is child-hating Robbie Rotten — has not felt the chill of the global slowdown. It may even be bringing in foreign exchange, although the company does not disclose financial data.
On a visit last month, Scheving told Reuters the direct effect of the crisis on Lazy Town Entertainment, the company he has built up since writing a children’s book nearly 20 years ago, was limited.
“The crisis does not have that much impact on ‘Lazy Town’,” he said: some 90 percent of the roughly 1,000 people working for or with the firm are overseas and most of its revenues are in foreign currencies.
The show is available in 14 languages including Korean, and the format draws revenue sources including licensing, merchandise, live shows and retailer packages. It is tailored for translation, with a nonsensical theme tune (“Bing Bang”).
Scheving is holding on to the ambitious vision for the program that has made it one of television’s most expensive children’s shows to produce at around $1 million per episode.
He has recently shot 26 new short episodes called “Lazy Town Extra,” which focus more on individual countries and involve local athletes along with Sportacus, Stephanie, Robbie Rotten and other characters.
In conversation, he flits from plans for a “Lazy Town” movie and theme park to his broader drive to improve children’s’ health and fight childhood obesity.
If Iceland were “Lazy Town,” the collapse of its banks would all be Robbie Rotten’s doing, and in a typical storyline Sportacus would in some way be prevented from rescuing it until its children managed to free him.
But when asked what Sportacus would do with the people who have led the global economy and Iceland to the brink of bankruptcy, Scheving took an uncharacteristic pause and smiled.
“There is not one person to blame. There were a lot of mistakes done along the way. People were not in balance, they took decisions from the wrong point of view and were too greedy,” he said.
“But now is not the time for blame. Now these people need more hugs than anyone I know.”
Editing by Sara Ledwith