Tapping into kids’ love of participating in their entertainment, as well as broadcasters’ need for inexpensive and adaptable programming for younger viewers, a new spate of inexpensive game formats for kids are poised to hit global airwaves in a major way over the next few years.
One show that’s generating a lot of industry buzz for its envelope-pushing interactivity is The Nelly Nut Show by Copenhagen, Denmark-based TV-Animation. With a start-up cost of about US$2 million, the project uses a new type of control software called the Cartoon Broadcast System to splice together real-time recordings from several virtual cameras trained on 2-D animated characters with lip synch functions. Kid players can call into the show and literally speak through these characters in real time, while controlling movements via their telephone keypads. Nelly Nut guides kids through several twisted games, all of which take place in her animal-inhabited house. The roster of activities includes Pet Dive, in which animals are punted (by an actual mechanical boot) off a very tall diving platform, aiming for a miniscule bucket of water hundreds of feet below. Besides hitting the wee target, kids must manipulate the critters into a variety of positions on the way down, including nontraditonal diving configurations like the ‘Peeing Into the Wind’ pose.
Also based in Denmark, interactive TV game pioneer ITE has developed a new format that it hopes will tap into the Olympics zeitgeist this fall when it debuts on the Danish Broadcasting Corporation in September. With a price tag of US$2 million, Sporty is a one- or two-player keypad-controlled show that pits call-in contestants against one another in a series of track and field events. The half-hour show’s same-name star athlete Sporty can also be used by broadcasters to host live Olympics segments. ITE head of production and sales Karl Sinclaire-Anderson points to the influence of the video game industry as one factor that’s helping to popularize game formats for kids right now. ‘There’s a very natural cross-pollination between the video game market and interactive TV development,’ he says. ‘Since video games have trickled down to younger and younger audiences over the years, it makes sense to develop TV game formats for them as well. And obviously, lots of TV people, because of the potential for merchandising, are pushing the target ages down even further.’ ITE has been producing interactive kid game formats for several years, and its roster includes long-running kid franchise Hugo the TV Troll and teen-skewing series Throut & Neck.
Tom Vedel, owner of TV-Animation, says interactive game shows like Sporty and The Nelly Nut Show are gaining ground on other types of formats because their high level of audience participation wins loyal viewers and because it costs relatively little to produce an unlimited number of episodes. Besides coughing up the license fee (which Vedel says varies depending on whether the outlet wants half hours, shorter segments or on-air hosts), all a broadcaster needs to produce Nelly is an editing suite and a crew of eight to 10 people to run the virtual cameras. Eliminating the need for expensive set construction, which drives up the cost of live productions, Nelly’s affordability has already proven appealing to several broadcasters.
From January to December 1999, public service broadcaster DR TV aired The Nelly Nut Show in 10- to 15-minute inserts at the end of its three-and-a-half-hour Saturday morning kids block. Despite the show’s consistent market share results of between 50% and 60%, the pubcaster wanted TV-Animation to make host Nelly more cute and cuddly. Vedel refused to tinker with his caustic star, describing her as Howard Stern’s daughter-if he had one. TV-Animation is currently shopping for another local caster for the show, which has been taken off the DR TV sked. Outside Denmark, Taiwan’s TVBS will use Nelly and friends as host characters starting this July, as well as airing the full-length 30-minute show on three of its satellite channels. Portugese prodco Miragem has also signed on to produce a daily half-hour Nelly show for one of Portugal’s regional casters.
Unsuccessful in its own attempts to find a U.S. berth for Nelly, TV-Animation recently inked a low six-figure deal with Mattel Interactive for a limited-time option on the show’s North American TV rights. ‘MI has a presence in the North American market that we can’t match as a 20-man operation from Copenhagen, Denmark,’ says Vedel. ‘It’s just not possible to get meetings with anybody above the level of office clerk without that kind of clout.’ Besides securing a State-side broadcast outlet, Mattel Interactive’s initial plans were to grow the Nelly property in order to capitalize on CD-ROM and merch extensions, but with the Mattel subsid up for grabs itself, it’s unclear now whether the project will continue full steam ahead or be relegated to the backburner. While that gets sorted out, TV-Animation will launch a Nelly Nut CD-ROM in Denmark and Taiwan this September, in tandem with a Web site debut.
Interactivity isn’t the only winning route when it comes to kid game show formats; sometimes all it takes is a globally popular theme to hook kid viewers. Montreal-based Spectra International Distribution is banking on the worldwide appeal of espionage to sell its live-action game format Operation Chameleon into foreign territories. ‘The spy theme is international-all kids are familiar with James Bond,’ says Marie-Sylvie Lefebvre, Spectra’s director of international distribution. A French-language version of the half-hour show currently airs twice daily (7 a.m., with a 4 p.m. rerun) on Canale Famille in Quebec, consistently garnering between 22% and 26% market share.
In episodes from Monday to Thursday, a new team of three kid contestants is driven blindfolded to the show’s studio-dubbed Alpha Base-each day. They learn spy techniques and participate in training exercises (such as recreating a face from memory using a computer compositing program, wall climbing, location and retrieval of bugs, etc.), winning points for speed and accuracy. The highest-scoring team comes back on Friday to complete a final mission for a mysterious, never-seen character called The Mist. If they complete the mission, the mini-spys graduate to Super Alpha Agent status, and if they find the right secret password, they get to meet The Mist and receive an attaché case full of spy paraphernelia like magnifying glasses and vials of disappearing ink.
According to Lefebvre, Spectra has produced more than 100 shows for around US$1.7 million, and the key to this low budget is recycling. ‘The set and props that we use are very slick-looking, but we reuse everything in order to keep our costs down,’ she says, stressing that the format need not be run daily if expense is a concern; two training shows and a final mission episode are all that are needed.
The success of this format, she says, hinges on its ability to get kids involved at a local level. Contestants are sometimes picked up and blindfolded at school, with all their friends watching. ‘When we do that, we’re guaranteed to have every child in that school watching that episode,’ says Lefebvre. ‘I think the audience likes that our contestants are ordinary kids and that they’re miked and filmed constantly. The bottom line is that kids like to see themselves represented in a real way on TV.’