Teen cyberseries gear up for TV crossover

With today's 31 million-strong U.S. teen demographic armed with an annual spending clout totaling US$141 billion*, the corresponding increased ad dollars and teen-targeted licensed merchandising opportunities have spawned a whole slew of teen fare in the past year, including cash cows...
April 1, 1999

With today’s 31 million-strong U.S. teen demographic armed with an annual spending clout totaling US$141 billion*, the corresponding increased ad dollars and teen-targeted licensed merchandising opportunities have spawned a whole slew of teen fare in the past year, including cash cows like Dawson’s Creek and Felicity. In the scramble to offer up new series for the challenging teen demo, much has been lost in terms of originality and spark. TV teen dramas are at the high-risk end of the programming spectrum for contributing to the boring, same-old mix that’s the kiss of death in the youth market. Cue the Internet, a platform that allows you to test pilot teen fare, in a medium inhabited largely by that demo.

The fact that the teen on-line population is projected to more than double from 4.5 million to 11 million by the year 2002**, coupled with total 1998 on-line sales totaling US$10 billion***, paints the same picture of lush teen market potential that led to the recent TV biz teen-show-apalooza. The difference is that the Net offers more intimate connection, apps and opps, as well as a wealth of cool, edgy content that already has teen approval. Add that to the recent maturation of on-line advertising and e-tailing, and it’s no wonder that digital animators are gearing up to use the Web as a launching pad for the next hit TV property.

‘If you can build a global fan base on-line, you can generate revenue [from advertisers and e-tailers]-all at a fraction of the cost of producing a TV pilot,’ says David Williams, president of Visionary Media, a New York-based Internet entertainment company poised for breakthrough in Internet/TV crossover. He estimates that one episode of an on-line series costs between US$10,000 and US$50,000 to produce, as opposed to several hundred thousand dollars for a TV series. ‘It’s unquestionable to me that [Web programming] is the new way to launch a property.’

Visionary is banking on the crossover success of its signature Net series WhirlGirl to prove this theory. The cyberco signed a multiyear deal with cable giant Showtime Networks for the co-production of original WhirlGirl episodes that will appear exclusively on the channel’s Web site ( To launch the initiative, Showtime broadcast the first new five-minute segment simultaneously on its cable TV channel and Web site on February 26. The double-medium cast marks the first time an original Web-based property has made the jump to television. As part of the multiyear deal, Showtime picked up the option to turn WhirlGirl into a longer-format TV series, depending on the cybersuccess of the other 27 original WhirlGirl eps to be co-produced by Showtime and Visionary.

An on-line sci-fi/action-adventure comic strip, WhirlGirl follows the adventures of cyberchick Kia Cross. Set in the year 2040, the bombshell superheroine spends her days saving the world from an evil mediatech empire. Described by Williams as ‘rayguns, romance and a rebel cause,’ WhirlGirl has built up a loyal following since it first debuted in 1997. Before the Showtime agreement, WhirlGirl was consistently garnering about 50,000 hits a month.

Visionary has developed a business model that will take advantage of both on-line and off-line revenue streams. Distribution partners like Showtime can garner a new teen audience for their existing entertainment media, as well as profiting from licensing activities for categories like apparel, video games and comic books. On-line revenues from teen advertisers and e-tailers eager to reach this tricky demo will also serve to pad Showtime’s pockets. Banner advertising, sponsorship packages, e-commerce, content sales and subscription fees for special content and fan clubs are just a few of the teen-targeted on-line revenue sources that Showcase can now explore for WhirlGirl.

Williams believes that existing material and the proven track records of Web properties offer potential partners an appealing reassurance that’s currently unavailable in the TV biz. ‘When we went to Showtime, we weren’t simply coming with a pitch or a pilot,’ says Williams. ‘We were coming with a product that was already developed, and we had some fairly comprehensive research about audience demographics and the popularity of the property as proven by our site traffic.’

Comic book legend Stan Lee’s exemplary track record with superhero hits is helping to attract financial interest in his first on-line venture. The 76-year-old Marvel guru has launched a Web site ( where his first set of new characters in 30 years is poised to debut June 1. Lee’s Encino, California-based company, Stan Lee Media, is in the process of finalizing deals that will transpose the new superhero crew into off-line media as well, including traditional comic publishing, video games, an animated TV series and a 3-D feature film (see ‘Spider-Man creator spins a new Web series,’ page 40, for more details).

Lee’s aim is to eventually develop the site into an e-commerce-driven, branded community hub for the world’s comic book fans and budding designers. ‘Stan Lee is a living icon for the comic book industry,’ says company co-founder Peter Paul. ‘His name and his creations are recognized worldwide, and corporations know that his branded site is the most effective way to reach the teen comic book subculture.’ At present, Stan Lee Media is funding the Web venture, but it’s expected that on-line revenue generated through Web sales of merchandise, sponsorships, advertising, co-branding and product placement will soon cover operating costs.

Animators that have enjoyed success in the traditional medium of TV have recently begun turning the Net into a testing ground for new characters that might have TV potential. In February, Cartoon Network launched Web Premiere Toons, a new on-line series of interactive animated shorts that’s based on a TV counterpart launched in 1998 called World Premiere Toons. Since its launch, the television show has spawned five original series and 50 shorts. The first two Web Premiere Toons unveiled on Cartoon’s Web site for kids ages 10 to 17 ( were entitled Pink Donkey and the Fly and B. Happy. The channel plans to develop five more by the year 2000.

In late 1998, Film Roman also made a move into cyberspace, signing a deal with Santa Monica, California-based Launch Media to provide five minutes of animation and live-action content for Launch’s unique monthly CD-ROM entertainment magazine. Entitled Level 13 Enter-

tainment, the new content debuted in Launch’s February issue.

Teen Web programming is not just about comics and cartoons, though. InterneTV (, an interactive television network based in Austin, Texas, is in the business of producing digital subculture entertainment, and the cybersoap Austin is among its many creations. Felicity or Dawson’s Creek gone digital, this slacker soap set in a Texas group home debuted in 1997, and was one of the first streaming video soap operas produced exclusively for the Internet. ‘Series always seem to be what works [with the teen demo],’ explains Jay Ashcraft, who formed InterneTV in 1995.

Ashcraft predicts that conventional television and the Internet will soon converge into a truly interactive medium, with broadband service providers selling programming to subscribers for a monthly fee. He plans to be there with a full slate of digital entertainment for teens ready on demand. ‘Our business model is threefold: bulk subscriptions via broadband (much like the current cable TV service model), merchandising and advertising.’

Whatever new media transformations ensue in the coming years, Web programming is an attractive opportunity now for developers, distributors and advertisers targeting the ever-elusive teen demo. There seems to be a budding industry trend to consciously develop Web characters and series that are easily transferable to other media. ‘We need to look at the properties and decide which medium is the best place to give birth to them,’ says Visionary’s David Williams. ‘Then, the other outlets and merchandising activities are just exploitation channels. We won’t know where the product ends and the commercial begins.’

* Source: Teenage Research Unlimited, located in Northbrook, Illinois; ** Source: New York-based research firm Jupiter Communications; *** Source: the Boston Consulting Group, based in Boston, Massachusetts

SIDEBAR: ITE taps teen digital penchant with interactive fare

The Web isn’t the only medium that’s serving interactive programming to teens. In 1990, Copenhagen, Denmark-based Interactive Television Entertainment (ITE) released its first interactive animated game show for television. Over the past nine years, it has continued to develop cutting-edge concepts for TV, and teens around the globe are playing its games. ITE’s latest creation pushes the limits of digital animation and interactive technology-finally making the couch potato experience a bit more exciting.

Aimed at 10- to 16-year-olds, Tush Tush is an interactive game show featuring live animation that’s piped from ITE’s platform into the television studio. Using a high degree of interactivity, TV viewers dial into the studio through either the Internet or a touch-tone phone, and control the antics of the show’s main character. ‘Interactive programming has a very strong appeal to teenagers because they can involve themselves and become part of what they are watching,’ says Jesper Helbrandt, ITE’s managing director. ‘They also spend a lot of time surfing the Internet-that’s another reason why this program attracts them.’ A deal for Tush Tush with a broadcaster in Brazil was being finalized at press time.

ITE will grab the attention of older teenagers in the U.S. when its two-year-old game show Throut & Neck debuts as a daily program on Game Show Network on May 3. Geared towards the 15 to 25 set, viewers use their telephone keypads to control the game’s two monster stars as they battle over territory in SheepHeaven, a kitschy world filled with fluffy cute sheep. Throut & Neck debuted successfully on MTV Brazil in 1997, receiving roughly 15,000 to 20,000 calls a day.

Throut & Neck is also slated to launch on CitiTV in Colombia this month. Terrestrial channels picking up the series are responsible for producing the live show component (complete with a host and a live studio audience), while ITE is the sole producer of the actual animation. Although the licensing rights for ITE’s product are cheaper than those for a conventional cartoon series, the costs a network incurs producing the live show push the total bill slightly higher.

‘The cost of the show varies depending on what country it is being produced in,’ explains Helbrandt. In his home country of Denmark, the price tag runs US$10,000 for a half-hour show. But the high level of interactivity ITE develops is initially expensive-it spent over US$2 million on just the first three episodes in the Throut & Neck series.

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