It really shouldn't work: a 41-year-old Icelander in a blue spandex unitard, with a waxed Dali mustache, floppy cap, and goggles, doing one-handed push-ups, high kicks, and backflips to convince kids that exercise is cool.
And yet Sportacus and his LazyTown TV show—a wacky blend of live action, puppets, and computer-generated imagery—are a hit with kids under 11 in 49 countries. Since debuting in the States in August 2004 on Nick Jr., LazyTown has become one of Nickelodeon's most popular shows, watched by close to 7 million viewers a week.
In a (healthy) nutshell, each show is a 30-minute tale of sporting Sportacus outfoxing the slothful villain Robbie Rotten and encouraging LazyTown's young couch potatoes to swap their PS2s for outdoor pursuits and fresh vegetables. The pink-haired heroine Stephanie interrupts the action with bubblegum-pop music.
Shot in Gardabaer, Iceland, using advanced HDTV cinematography, each $600,000 LazyTown episode is a hypervivid assault on the senses. "The pacing is incredibly fast, and we were mesmerized by it," says Michael Carrington, who bought LazyTown for the BBC. "It's as innovative and genre changing as Teletubbies. And like Teletubbies, you either hate LazyTown or you love it."
There's a lot to love. While the incidence of childhood obesity in the United States has nearly quadrupled in the past three decades, the trend in Iceland has been halted—due in no small part, the Icelandic surgeon general has determined, to LazyTown. During a LazyTown book promotion in Norway, consumption of fruits and vegetables increased 12.5% and soft drinks fell 16%.
"People ask me how we make exercise cool, but it's like trying to explain the secret of making people laugh," says Magnús Scheving, the show's creator (and the buff guy in the unitard). His campaign for kids' health began in 1991 with a book, Go! Go! LazyTown!, followed by live theatrical performances and a 24-hour radio station. Now he sells everything from LazyTown-branded bottled water, cookbooks, shoes, and kids' airline meals to Fisher-Price toys, T-shirts, cod-liver oil, and toothpaste. (Scheving's LazyTown Entertainment won't reveal financial data, but he says its value has doubled in each of the past five years.)
It's a financial performance nearly as frenetic as Scheving's show. Just watching one episode, wherein Sportacus overcomes Rotten's soccer robot, is enough to leave one (and one's 3-year-old) exhausted. The big question (yet unanswered): Is it also enough to get the kid to eat carrots?
A version of this article appeared in the January/February 2006 issue of Fast Company magazine.