MIPCOM is hosting its inaugural convergence conference. . . as if there already wasn’t enough competition for selling shows, nets are investing in a new type of original programming-Webisodes. And some of the on-line-tested concepts are destined for TV. Convergence?
Kids have converged
Fred Seibert, president of MTV Networks Online, says convergence is a reality most kids live with every day. ‘If you walk into any child’s room, you see them on-line and watching TV [at the same time],’ he notes. ‘We ask ourselves the question, `Are there things that we can do when you’re watching TV and [going] on-line to make it more interesting?”
Nets are waiting
While several kids networks tout significant gains in integrating the computer and TV, ‘there is no convergence yet,’ says Cartoon Network Online’s VP and creative director Sam Register. ‘Until the two boxes are one, we’re not really in a convergence environment.’
Technical stumbling blocks aside, the number of Web users in the U.S. is expected to increase from about 51 million at the end of 1998 to over 100 million by the end of 2003 (NATPE compilation TV Trends, Vol. 1, No. 5), so ample resources and creative talent are being applied to kidcasters’ preconvergence products. As the average kid doesn’t have cutting-edge on-line capabilities, most content focuses on interactivity rather than pushing the technological envelope.
Cartoon Network, for instance, offers Web Premiere Toons, an interactive site where original animation debuts. Disney Channel’s year-old Zoog Disney programming block integrates input gleaned from kids on the zoogdisney.com Web site. Nick offers The Snooker Report, an on-line mystery series bolstered by on-air interstitials, while sister station MTV boasts an interactive video quiz show called webRIOT. In June, Fox Family premiered two gender-specific kids channels on-line, gathering information about their audience demos and potential hit shows through the boyzChannel.com and girlzChannel.com Web sites-a full six months before the channels’ scheduled on-air debut this month.
Beefed up Web sites with streaming video clips are not enough for the on-line content providers of 1999, says John Roberts, VP of new media at Fox Kids Network Online. ‘We’re not just repurposing material [from TV] in order to do something on-line,’ he says. ‘As far as content goes, we want to make it as in-depth as possible.’ Roberts heads up Fox Family Worldwide’s convergence task force, which produces original content for Fox Kids Network on-line (www.foxkids.com), including a weekly five- to seven-minute multipath movie based on Double Day Dell’s series Choose Your Own Nightmare. In order to play a Power Rangers Lost Galaxy shockwave game that launched on-line at the end of January, over 400,000 kids used a special password posted on-air during the show to access the Web game. The digital Fox crew also handles Fox Family Channel on-line (foxfamilychannel.com) and the companion Internet site for Fox Family’s digital TV networks boyzchannel and girlzchannel, which launched on-line in June.
‘Our mantra for [the channels] was `For kids, by kids,” says Roberts. ‘We’ve used the net to find out who our audience is and what they’re looking for.’ For example, Ask Zak, Ask Zoe is an advice column in gbSPACE, the area shared by both sites. The two writers for the feature were discovered through Fox’s on-line department, and the property is now being considered for a possible TV spin-off based on its strong kid participation. In addition, input from the sites was used to create original magazine talk shows Boyzopolis and Girlzville-flagship half-hour series for the respective channels. The shows’ creators studied feedback gathered from the Web sites’ chat areas to discern which topics were of the most interest to kids. The success of chat and game functions on all Fox Family sites has led Roberts to prioritize these two activities in developing new Web content.
Nickelodeon’s answer to convergence readiness was The Snooker Report, an on-line intrigue that combined 30- to 60-second TV interstitials (airing daily on Nick) with the Snooker Report Web site (www.snooker.nick.com), where weekly or biweekly Webisodes offered clues for solving an ongoing mystery. The story followed Shanna, a real 12-year-old girl who was spending the summer with her dog Snooker in a beach community called Twisted Pines. Her pooch goes missing, thus providing the mystery element to the Web TV plot. The Snooker Report ran from June 14 through August 22, and the Web site continued for a week following the last TV episode. For the month of July the digital initiative increased Nick.com’s overall page views by 3.7%.
Nick pioneered its Webisode concept in December 1996 with Natalie’s Backseat Traveling Web Show, which launched as a pilot, then continued on-line in diary-like Webisodes describing a young girl’s cross-country journey.
The largest demonstration of Nick’s ability to pull huge numbers of kids on-line is its May 1 Kids Choice Awards. Over 4.5 million votes were tallied on-line and over 76,600 participants logged onto the AOL chat held during the event. Kids also participated in a ‘Chat and Win’ sweepstakes, answering real-time questions about the Kids’ Choice Awards to win various prizes. Seibert projects that MTV’s webRIOT, produced in conjunction with San Francisco-based Spiderdance, will also pull in large kid hits when it debuts November 29. The series plays to kids’ appetite for pop music with four live contestants going up against against 25,000 on-line players to determine who knows the most about music and music videos.
One of the most impressive kid-user tallies to date is held by year-old Zoog Disney, which boasts one million registered users on its zoogdisney.com site. On Sunday evenings, the animated Zoogs host a 5 p.m. block of three shows-Z Games, Going Wild With Jeff Corwin and Flash Forward-and then invite kids to check out their Web site. At a median age of 14.9 years old, visitors to the site are lured by the chance to play games, answer questions, join celebrity chats and-most importantly-post messages that could end up being mentioned on-air.
‘We’re really working on the entertainment experience on-line,’ reports Eleo Hensleigh, executive VP of marketing at Disney/ABC Cable Networks and overseer of Zoog Disney. ‘We’re creating pure entertainment, trying to figure out how you bring to on-line a concept that’s as good as TV.’ Hensleigh’s formula for success includes a relatively low emphasis on emerging technology, because the average kid and parent don’t have the patience for lengthy downloads. ‘Technology is not driving it, ideas and concepts are. Waiting for stuff is really boring,’ she notes. Consequently, zoogdisney.com focuses on participatory games and contests, leaving the storytelling function for television. ‘We get [on-line] feedback every single week, so we’ve been able to make course corrections along the way,’ Hensleigh concludes.
Original content is the mandate for Cartoon Network’s Web Premiere Toons, the February-launched on-line cartoon site that has catapulted cartoonnetwork.com to a number-two kids site ranking, and a number-one ranking for average time spent on a kids Web site (43 minutes per individual on average), according to Media Metrix. Original Web cartoons B. Happy and Pink Donkey and the Fly will be joined by all-new The Banana Splits, debuting in 2000. All Web Premiere Toons are developed and produced in-house and then executed at outside studios like New York’s Funny Garbage
Banana Splits is a spin-off of the cult classic `70s live-action variety show in which rock musicians appeared in fuzzy animal suits. Dubbed ‘cartoons you click on,’ the Web toons are not streaming video, but are presented in a page-by-page format, with the user’s click propelling the images forward. At certain junctures, users are invited to branch off of the central narrative, usually for comic effect. The site’s six first-year toons will grow to 24 in the second year, according to Web Premiere Toons mastermind Register, who says the interactive toons pull in a slightly higher number of teens than the larger network.
An adult following has also amassed for the site’s nostalgic fare like the Saturday Night Fred cartoon and an entire first season of Fred Flintstone, available in streaming video. Behind-the-scenes informational archive Department of Cartoons also attracts mature users, who click to see previously unseen vintage cartoon art and storyboards.
Moving forward into increased interactivity, Register plans a new Johnny Bravo project that allows kids to request their favorite cartoons and interact live via phone or the Internet, although no air date has been set.
Struggling to catch up with its impressive competition, KidsWB.com is being revamped for fall to provide interactive content, games, message boards and contest entry areas. Currently, an Acmecity link on the site allows kids to build their own free Superman or Pokémon home pages.
At the studio level, the Warner Bros. Online division, headed by Jim Bannister, is committed to producing both original Web programming and brand extensions for existing franchises. Slated to launch next spring on the studio’s new narrowband/broadband entertainment portal Entertaindom, Drive-On.com will be Warner Bros.’ first episodic Web show. The new high-speed site for broadband users is a stand-alone experience rather than a supplement to TV shows, says Bannister. Reportedly, the site will also be accessible to those with regular Net connections.
While some nets are producing all Internet projects in-house, many kids networks are tapping into the talent and technology
of indie networks to launch their on-line sites. Here’s a look at the new kid content competition.
As the convergence between TV and the Internet becomes a more attainable reality, on-line nets are sprouting up in all corners of the digital universe and scrambling to create original programming for the Web that will keep kids coming back to their sites.
While some net programmers feel the only way to survive in this brave new world is to align themselves with popular, well-known studios, others are determined to carve out a niche for themselves as the AOL of the streaming world before this new genre hits the mainstream. According to a report released in July by Silicon Valley-based marketing consultant Frost & Sullivan, the interactive TV industry could generate US$5 billion in sales by 2006. The report goes on to say that as the popularity of interactive TV grows and prices fall, the service should become commonplace in the home, reaching an estimated 20 million people by 2010.
According to Bill Sweetman, VP of on-line strategy and marketing services at Toronto’s Multimediator Strategy Group, streamed content is becoming more popular because the technology is improving, leading to the creation of independent networks.
‘One thing we’re seeing is independent, nontraditional broadcasting entities starting up true Web-casting entities. That is unusual, and is actually somewhat threatening to TV broadcasters. Suddenly a relatively small operation with a relatively small investment can stream in real time.’
One company that has already generated a comprehensive on-line kids plan-including everything from full-length streamed programs to e-commerce-is San Francisco’s Spunky Productions, which launched a network of original Internet entertainment programs for preschoolers, kids and teens this month. Spunkytown.com consists of nine properties in total, including five shows for kids ages six to 12. The Spunkytown model serves as a ‘cartoon incubator,’ according to president and co-founder Karl Kronenberger. The indie net uses the Web as a launch pad for new properties. If they pass muster with on-line viewers and generate a fan base, Spunky plans to spin them off onto other sites, as well as into TV and video properties.
‘Our motto is syndication,’ says Kronenberger. ‘We can produce high-quality, TV-like cartoons on the Internet for a fraction of the cost to produce them on television.’ The company’s seven- to 10-minute-long toons cost between US$15,000 to US$25,000 to produce.
In terms of marketing strategy, Spunky will run advertising for its on-line animations on TV, and merchandise based on the cartoons (including The Beatless, a toon about a no-talent group of musicians that solves crimes) will be available on-site.
But it doesn’t end there. Spunkytown will also build brand loyalty, an element that will play a crucial role as convergence heightens the network competition for kids’ attention. Regular visitors to the site will be able to download Internet trading cards for swapping with friends and collecting towards the purchase of on-line merchandise. Spunkytown has also put some thought into its use of technology. While other on-line networks have minimum modem requirements of 56K, Spunkytown requires only a basic 28.8K modem and a downloaded version of Macromedia Flash.
As the technology catches up, says media guru Sweetman, more people will have access to cable lines or DSL (digital subscriber lines). However, he warns that full convergence isn’t an immediate reality.
‘It will never be a reality for everyone. That’s a bit of a myth.’ He says that’s because those in remote regions who don’t have access to cable television won’t have access to high-speed cable lines. Limitations also include people using older software to access streamed content, networks having to pay literally by the byte for streamed programming, and copyright issues for networks that are streaming content for use on the Net. Sweetman explains this last complication as such: ‘There are copyright issues because once you download the file, you can then save it to your hard drive, so in a sense you own it.’
L.A.-based BreakTV is going one step beyond offering new programming for the Net. In addition to a wealth of original fare, the digital denizen is planning to provide on-line versions of existing kids TV shows. Launched July 14, the 24-hour network already has three streamed kids series up and running. Peter Cottontail (by L.A.-based Rhino Records), Just Imagine You’re an Astronaut (by L.A.’s Flying Tomato Films) and Little Dracula (by Renaissance Atlantic of Beverly Hills) are five to seven minutes each and include several 15-second spots. The group plans to launch between three to seven additional kids shows in the next few months. BreakTV plans to form as many strategic alliances with Hollywood studios as possible in order to develop a full slate of children’s programming. Since its July launch, the site (www.breaktv.com) has been experiencing roughly 5,000 page views a day.
Break’s general strategy, says CEO Joe Nassour, is to launch popular kids series that are currently available on home video and DVD, eventually adding original programming produced by BreakTV. As well, Nassour says the network hopes to build an on-line community around each property, fuelled by e-commerce (largely in the form of series kidvids), chat rooms, biographies and more.
‘The concept here isn’t for our site to be a total viewing experience,’ says Sam Ashenofsky, senior VP of sales advertising. ‘We’re actually trying to drive people back to television. The site allows them to look at what’s available in a short period of time and purchase video product from us.’
Although true convergence could generate the need for on-line content to conform to the traditional half-hour format, BreakTV plans to keep its segments short for the time being. ‘The computer, for the most part, is not conducive to long-term programming,’ says Ashenofsky. ‘I can sit on my couch and watch TV for two hours, but on my computer, I don’t even want to watch a half hour. It’s just too long.’
Break’s executive VP of marketing Chuck Pennock optimistically expects on-line networks to eventually erode ratings of the bigger traditional TV nets in a post-convergence environment. He predicts that indies’ highly focused content will steal eyeballs away from congloms like NBC, ABC and CBS, which, by virtue of their wide target demos, can’t offer the same topic depth.
David Hutchinson, senior manager of Toronto’s City Interactive, offers a different three-year forecast. He sees only a few nets remaining after the initial surge of on-line networks. ‘A half-dozen media companies will capitalize on the lion’s share,’ he says, adding that those survivors will be the ones on the cutting edge of content creation. ‘If it ain’t compelling, don’t bother.’
Other Web networks like Woodland Hills, California-based Brilliant Digital are creating both original content for broadcast on its own Web site, as well as digital fare for larger studios. The cyberco created and launched original movie Gravity Angels earlier this year for Internet and TV broadcast, and is currently working on a series of electronic kids books by Brilliant Studios, the first of which is called The Pirate Who Wouldn’t Wash. The rest of the series is currently being converted into Webisodes for children.
President Kevin Bermeister says Brilliant Digital has plans to develop some e-commerce activities, although selling merchandise on-line won’t be the main focus of the sites. The sites are also capable of delivering a revenue stream from either banner or streamed advertising.
Brilliant Digital produces its Web content in television-length half-hour segments to prepare for the onset of better streaming technology. The episodes are then split up into five- to six-minute intervals for broadcast on the Net.
Other multimedia experts see that as on-line programming and services like WebTV become more commonplace, people won’t be paying for the technology but for the programming itself. Thirty frames of video per second (the television standard) is still not the norm as far as format goes. Currently, most streamed content is between 15 and 22 frames per second.
An on-line entertainment agency specializing in streaming technologies, Seattle-based Honkworm International is currently running three different original Web shows on its site (www.honkworm.com). Teen offering Fatman runs in four parts and chronicles the adventures of an aging superhero. For general audiences, Honkworm also offers Spy Cow and FishBar.
‘Storytelling for the Web is like writing an ad. If you can’t have a viewer wanting the next episode in three minutes or less, they’re already gone,’ says Honkworm CEO John Liedgren, a former Microsoft executive. Honkworm toons are easily downloadable, requiring only a 28.8 K modem, streaming with RealPlayer 5.0 or Shockwaveflash.
Honkworm plans to license its animations to existing high-traffic volume Web sites that will take care of promoting the digital toons on-line. Honkworm is also currently in negotiations with a toy manufacturer and an as-yet-unnamed kids cable operator about future kids projects.
Co-founder Noah Tannen says: ‘Original on-line programming is helping to set up the model for convergence, but streaming content will never simply replace TV. It really will be a merging of the two.’ As for netting kid eyeballs, Tannen maintains that high-quality writing and strong production values are more important than any level of interactivity.