Brace yourself, because this story is going to make you feel really old. The Power Rangers — those brightly colored teenage superheroes that have at various times been ninjas, space cadets, race-car drivers, samurai and everything in between — turn 20 years old today. While you were busy aging, the Power Rangers racked up more than 800 episodes battling giant, bizarrely shaped monsters pretty much every week for two decades. The franchise has had its ups and downs but is currently riding a wave of popularity the likes of which it hasn't experienced since the 1990s.
Back when it started in 1993, the Power Rangers were unlikely candidates to become children's-television juggernauts. The show's original iteration, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, was a campy mash-up of action footage from a Japanese superhero series called Super Sentai and American-made dramatic scenes, a format the show more or less uses to this day. It was dreamed up by a television producer named Haim Saban, who first saw the goofy Japanese show at a hotel in Tokyo. The major networks had passed on a variation of the concept in the mid-'80s, but Fox, which was still a relative upstart, decided to pick the show up as part of its big push into kids' television.
Some at the network were skeptical of the program, predicting that it would be a "disaster." There were bad English overdubs. There were electric sparks illogically erupting from spandex suits. There were enough cheesy one-liners to fill a Twitter feed. And kids loved it.
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"The ability for a young, ordinary teenager to save the world is something that's always been core to Power Rangers," says Elie Dekel, the president of Saban Brands and a member of the original team behind the show. "It's highly aspirational to kids."
The show was an instant smash hit, offering a lot more action — and violence — than kids were used to from more polished productions from Disney and Nickelodeon. Mighty Morphin Power Rangers averaged 4.8 million daily viewers in its first season, according to Nielsen, and 6.9 million in its second, making it by far the most popular kids' show of its era. Its toys, costumes and merchandise generated about $1 billion in revenue in 1995, according to Fortune. When the Power Rangers actors went to Universal Studios in 1994 for a meet and greet, they attracted 35,000 people and caused an 8-mile-long (13 km) traffic jam in Los Angeles.
"When it premiered 20 years ago, it went on to redefine what was possible in a kids' show in terms of ratings, global appeal, pop-culture relevance," Dekel says. "All those things kind of reset when Power Rangers got to the marketplace."
The phenomenon peaked, as many do, with a glossy movie, in 1995. When the Rangers moved on to a different theme after Mighty Morphin, ratings and toy sales sagged. A second movie bombed at the box office two years later. Saban, who leveraged the success of Power Rangers to build a whole stable of popular kids' programming and the Fox Family cable channel, sold the Rangers and the rest of his Fox properties to Disney in 2001. There the show did even worse, bottoming out with around 250,000 viewers as it cycled through a different gimmick each season.
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Like so many other artifacts of the '90s, the show could have been left to wallow in obscurity. But Saban reacquired Power Rangers in 2010 with plans to reinvigorate the franchise on Nickelodeon. "We pulled out our playbook from the '90s in terms of marketing and promotion," Dekel says. "We rekindled a lot of those strategies, including a focus on grassroots marketing — having Power Rangers–costumed characters appear at local market events on an ongoing, regular basis. We believed in the power of new episodes."
The first new iteration under Saban, Power Rangers Samurai, was a big hit with kids, averaging 2.3 million viewers in 2011. Toy sales also regained their pulse that year, as Power Rangers toys generated $40 million in revenue, according to NPD. That figure doubled to $80 million in 2012 when another successful season of Samurai launched. Power Rangers is now ranked No. 17 among kids' licenses overall, according to NPD. And kids are dressing up as Rangers again too — the company says costume sales have tripled in the past two years.
"It continues to be one of the more relevant licenses out there," says Russ Crupnick, an NPD analyst who follows the toy industry. "You've got a brand essentially that parents have also grown up with. Parents like brands that convey familiarity and in a sense safety."
Though the Rangers are again popular, new challenges have emerged. The brand's demographics skew younger than they once did, with its toys mostly appealing to boys ages 3 to 8. "Kids are kind of growing up a little faster these days in terms of the technology they have to play with," says Matthew Hudak, an analyst at Euromonitor who covers toys and games. "You will be competing nowadays more and more with tablets."
Saban has responded with more digital offerings. An interactive game on Nick.com is among the website's most popular. There are also multiple games available for the iPhone, both based on the modern iterations of the show and legacy seasons.
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Meanwhile, there are efforts to keep older fans engaged with the franchise too, as other kids' brands like Transformers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have done. On platforms like Facebook and Instagram, where the show's main audience is too young to register, Saban posts images and trivia related to classic seasons like Mighty Morphin. The franchise now has a regular presence at Comic Con, the annual celebration of movies, video games and comic books aimed squarely at adults. Older fans are even planning a Power Rangers convention of their own next summer.
At the peak of Power Rangers mania, Haim Saban boasted in news reports that the franchise would be around for a decade. Even he might have doubted that such an offbeat kids' show would last for a generation (or that he'd have ridden its success to a personal net worth of $3.1 billion). But the Rangers are still here, bleeding sparks and battling inside giant robots ("zords" in Power Rangers lingo). Dekel admits the show's popularity may not be as universal as it once was, but at the 20-year mark it's hit another sweet spot with children.
"Even now, as we enter our third decade, kids are responding in similar ways," he says. "They want to have a Power Rangers birthday party, they want to dress as Power Rangers for Halloween, and they want to watch the next episode."