Some of the latest trends and products in new media for kids are on display as the world’s leading developers, publishers, distributors and retailers involved in interactive entertainment descend on the Los Angeles Convention Center for only the second Electronic Entertainment Expo.
In the following Special Report, KidScreen takes a look at the cross-over of (mostly animated) film- and television-originated characters to CD-ROMs and on-line services.
Through a series of case histories, we examine some of the issues, including the advantages and disadvantages, in adapting known characters to new media products.
Storyline: Iris, The Happy Professor, the wacky bird puppet created by Desclez Productions of Montreal, brings preschoolers into the classroom with song and dance. On the CD-ROM, Professor Iris and friends introduce children to the ocean and the jungle in fun-filled adventures that build their vocabulary, language and reading skills.
Target Audience: Preschoolers
Key Activities: Creative exploration
Since 1994, Discovery Channel Multimedia, a unit of Discovery Communications, has produced CD-ROMs that serve as brand extensions to complement existing series and specials airing on both Discovery Channel and The Learning Channel, as well as completely original product not supporting broadcast series.
While most of the regular ‘characters’ that appear on these channels are sharks, whales or other of nature’s creatures and wonders, one of the first CD-ROMs under the company’s new division was based on TLC’s popular animated preschool character Professor Iris. Two CD-ROMs under the umbrella title of Professor Iris’ Fun Field Trip have been published. The first, Animal Safari, was released in 1994. Seaside Adventure came out last year. The Professor Iris CD-ROMs were made in conjunction with Mountain View, California-based software maker T/Maker and Montreal’s Desclez Productions, the series’ producer.
A cornerstone to The Learning Channel’s Ready! Set! Learn! block of commercial-free weekday morning programming, the popular Professor Iris seemed to be the most natural character to spin off into a CD-ROM.
‘We thought that if we want to venture into the preschool market, Professor Iris, which restores the role of teacher in the classroom as a good role model for kids, [would be ideal],’ says Margaret Buckley, executive producer, Discovery Channel Multimedia. ‘There are a lot of kids who really like Iris and who think Iris and his adventures are fun. We thought it was a good idea to build brand and character recognition by creating an auxiliary product.’
Buckley, who comes from a television production background, quickly learned that multimedia presents challenges, traps and difficulties that she had never encountered in broadcast. Foremost were the constant new waves of technology that could render products a generation behind before they even came out on the market. Trying to publish a product that is most up-to-date with the software and hardware currently available becomes a never-ending catch-22.
‘It’s such a different beast,’ says Buckley. ‘As soon as you publish something, somebody’s come out with a tool that could have made what you have already published slightly better.’
Repeat usage is another major difference between TV and multimedia that proves a constant challenge for Buckley. In TV, her job was to get the viewer to watch the show once, but in multimedia, the riddle she must solve is how to make the game fascinating enough so that kids will want to come back to it time and time again. This is a vital question to answer, especially in the kids market. Products have to be designed for two purchasers: the child and the parent who pays for them. The games have to be made so children will want to keep playing them. If they don’t, the parents won’t think they’ve made a good purchase and may be hesitant to buy future products featuring that character.
In the case of Professor Iris, Buckley strived to make the software mirror the show as much as possible, so the children using the CD-ROMs would make the connection that the elements in the series were the same elements on the software. An example is the Professor’s school bell. On the series, when the bell rings, the show is over. On the CD-ROM, the on-screen bell acts as the quit button. ‘We tried to sh’ehorn things from the show into the CD-ROM,’ says Buckley. ‘We didn’t monkey with the original characters. We didn’t want to introduce any new ones. We didn’t want to break what works. However, some things didn’t translate. We had to run them by kids to see what worked and what didn’t.’
While Buckley said that it’s much easier to devise games based on already established characters because of the obvious built-in recognition factor, trying to create a character from the ground up specifically for a CD-ROM has benefits too. She said that children like the idea of an on-screen host who acts as a friend walking them through. However, trying to build a whole marketplace around that character (devising a TV show from it) is difficult, but not impossible, as the success of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? has proven.
The company is mulling over trying to accomplish such a feat with characters it introduced in its Big Job CD-ROM. Big Job, released last fall, is an activity-based product in which kids pick a type of truck, drive into the Big Job Clubhouse, and build things. It features two on-screen hosts who guide kids through the product and is skewed to a slightly older audience.
In the meantime, Discovery Channel Multimedia has no current plans to produce further Professor Iris games. In fact, it has determined that the three- to six-year-old market has grown too crowded, so it has shifted focus to the eight- to 12-year-old market.
Most of Discovery’s CD-ROM releases have been in support of popular series such as Iris, The Happy Professor, Wings and In the Company of Whales. However, it is aggressively marketing games, such as Big Job, that stand on their own. SkyTrip America, which was released on May 1, looks at U.S. history from a multi-cultural perspective. In August, it debuts Invention Studio, in which kids can build creations and test them out to see if they work or not.
Buckley feels that after several years of learning the business, Discovery Channel Multimedia is right on target with its audience. ‘We’ve got a great focus for kids and a great focus across the board for our hobbyist line, our exploration line and our entertainment lines. We’ve got the backing and the reputation of the Discovery Channel, which is an advantage-and disadvantage-because we have to live up to those standards. It’s not always so easy, but it makes our job very rewarding, because when we do come out with a product, it’s pretty good.’