Nets court next-gen kids with Internet hybrids

These days, 'convergence' is being used to describe just about everything from human interaction with common household appliances (I think I communicate pretty well with my fridge already, thanks) to the intersection of TV broadcasting and the Internet. Broadcasters and cablers,...
August 1, 2000

These days, ‘convergence’ is being used to describe just about everything from human interaction with common household appliances (I think I communicate pretty well with my fridge already, thanks) to the intersection of TV broadcasting and the Internet. Broadcasters and cablers, keen not to miss out, are dropping the Silicon Valley buzzword into just about every conversation.

PC Data figures from June 2000 indicate that 10 million U.S. kids ages two to 11 currently access the Internet on a regular basis. And Media Metrix estimates from April 2000 suggest that kids spend an average of more than 17 minutes per session-almost a television half hour-on any one of eight major kid portals. What’s more, the numbers are increasing, so while we’re still waiting for an interactive TV standard, and the existing revenue models for e-commerce, banner ads and subscription sales have yet to cover the costs of the sites, no broadcaster is willing to forego its chance to connect directly with kid viewers.

‘Our core audience of six- to 12-year-olds is the demographic that is really going to embrace interactive TV. That group is techno-savvy, they’re the early adopters,’ says Steve Rolufs, director of new media at Toronto-based Canadian kidnet YTV. But he cautions against jumping on the interactive bandwagon without pausing to think first: ‘Too many people are doing interactivity or pitching the notion of interactive TV just for the sake of doing it. Everyone’s saying, `you’ll press the button when you watch the show and get deeper information or an e-commerce experience,’ but it really has to be compelling, something that the viewer is interested in.’ Rolufs holds up the station’s Webcast for the YTV Annual Achievement Awards earlier this year as an example. More than just repurposed footage, the youth-oriented award show was streamed on-line with additional ‘director’s cut’ type interviews a month before the network broadcast. ‘There was a lot of value added that you couldn’t get just watching it on television,’ says Rolufs.

It’s the beginning of a new industry for many. ‘We’re in our R&D laboratory phase this year to see what works and what doesn’t so we can make our initiatives bigger next year,’ says Sam Register, VP and creative director of Cartoon Network Online.

Part of that R&D involves examining new revenue models. For instance, Cartoon Network’s Toonami: The Intruder, a five-day Web spin-off from the Toonami programming block with on-line information, games and puzzles, will run in September. Offering a grand prize trip to Japan at week’s end, the television/Web project is sponsored entirely by gameco Nintendo of America.

New technologies present new challenges. As a member of the AOL/Time-Warner

family, Cartoon Network has also been approached to develop content for AOL’s newest creation: AOL TV. But newer doesn’t always mean faster. ‘Those AOL boxes don’t have as much memory as your computer, so it’s almost like a website from three years ago,’ Register explains. ‘You can’t do a lot of the Flash and some of the gaming we depend upon with on-line animation.’

Over at Nickelodeon, Dora the Explorer, a project aimed at the two- to five-year-old set, launched on the site in July, just prior to the broadcast series’ debut on August 15. Featuring an interactive Spanish/English dictionary, the site was created to introduce the seven-year-old Latina heroine Dora to her junior audience and warm them up for her TV launch.

While many broadcasters continue to use the Internet simply as a support device for their TV platform, a kind of cross-pollination is on the rise, with the Web now influencing TV choices. Butt-Ugly Martians, a co-production from California-based Mike Young Productions, U.K.-based Just Entertainment and Hong Kong-based DCDC Studios, is one example. Scheduled to air on the U.K.’s CITV later this year, the program, which is aimed at four- to 17-year-olds, will be supported by a Stoat Muldoon site ‘operated’ by the self-promoting alien hunter of the same name. The site, created by L.A.-based, will encourage kids to go on-line to report any strange alien occurrences they might witness in their own backyard. Other planned initiatives include on-line games where kids win ‘digital currency’ that can be exchanged for real merchandise and a Stoat Muldoon MP3 music video for the site launch at the beginning of September.

EM.TV is moving to the next level of convergence by skipping the broadcaster altogether with its junior.web initiative. ‘It feels like the Internet, it smells like the Internet, it is the Internet. Only it isn’t the Internet-it’s a data bank in our cellar,’ says Hans Peter Vriens, a member of the board responsible for marketing at Munich-based EM.TV & Merchandising. Presenting ‘mirror images’ of kid sites selected from the wilds of the Web, the project will create a German-language safe haven for kids: Only parents and kids over 14 with password access can leave the junior.web database to roam the Internet freely. Acting as a ‘virtual ISP,’ EM.TV will broker the phone time kids spend logged onto the database by selling telecom minutes to parents at a premium in exchange for the assurance of a kid-safe on-line environment.

Targeting the 9.4 million German households with kids between the ages of four and 14, junior.web effectively turns EM.TV into a Webcaster, giving the licensing giant a platform for its more than 15,000 hours of programming.

A lower on-line computer penetration per European household (a 1999 study from Jupiter Communications indicates U.K. penetration is at 14%, compared to 44% in U.S.) has Europeans looking to non-PC platforms for their content. EM.TV is in licensing discussions with WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) developers over technology that would allow kids to send messages with EM’s character icons over cell phones. As Vriens explains: ‘The only two businesses in the U.S. that [have as large a library] as we do are Warner and Disney, and they’re U.S.-based and haven’t tapped this market at all. Our phone is ringing off the hook with people trying to do WAP deals.’ As of press time, however, Vriens wouldn’t say who’s been calling.

U.K.-based on-line producer (and former Disney exec) Billy Macqueen plans to stick to old-fashioned Web technology for the immediate future, following the recent airing of his latest project via CITV’s ‘Summer of Web’ feature. From July 3 to July 7, the on-air/on-line initiative showcased Mouse, the brainchild of Macqueen and Maddy Darrall, and the first project from their newly formed production house Darrall Macqueen. The 15-minute magazine-style show, aimed at seven- to 10-year-olds, included a live Webcam hookup and a kid-sized Web page in a mouse-shaped studio. As pop star presenters and in-studio kids confessed how the Web changed their lives, kids at home e-mailed questions that the in-studio personalities answered in real time. With a winning 37% share of four- to 15-year-olds in its time slot, and an 800% increase in traffic to the Mouse microsite and CITV website, the initiative is likely to be repeated in the near future.

One of the last projects greenlit by Nigel Pickard, former head of children’s programming at CITV, before his recent appointment as controller of children’s programming at the CBBC, Mouse hints at the direction CITV is headed. Martin Fox, executive producer of CITV Presentation, suggests that more of the same kind of convergence will get the go-ahead when CITV bows its own digital channel later this year or early next year. Says Fox: ‘The focus of the digital channel will be interactivity and Webcasting.’

Darrall Macqueen has a few ideas on how to fill the channel’s time slots. Other Web initiatives include Starbookers, a live magazine-style show where kids vote on-line to ‘book’ which stars will appear on the Saturday morning telecast, with openings for kids themselves to guest star. Kids shift from being audience members to performers in this on-line community. Says Macqueen, ‘in my ideal world, it ties into children’s theater around the world.’

Other Darrall Macqueen projects include Fierce, a co-production with the Johannesburg-based production company Urban Brew. Following a broadcast mix of domestic and wild animal story strands, kids will have access to an on-line library of additional information about their favorite animals from the show. Still in the development stage, Macqueen says that the animal database may find a home on WAP and iMode (Japanese wireless technology) enabled phones.

Like so many of the cutting edge convergence projects, the details of the wireless initiative are sketchy: Both the content design and the portal have yet to be disclosed. ‘This is happening in a year’s time, but we have to be investigating it now,’ says Macqueen.

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