The web as TV development tool

KidScreen explores the import of the web-as well as the role of toycos-in kids TV development. This market's coolest new shows are also staked out, and since we know it's on your mind, a primer on kid licensing tidbits concludes this...
October 1, 2000

KidScreen explores the import of the web-as well as the role of toycos-in kids TV development. This market’s coolest new shows are also staked out, and since we know it’s on your mind, a primer on kid licensing tidbits concludes this report.

It’s a fact. Everyone has jumped into the World Wide Web with colorful new kid entertainment concepts. The web is a place, unencumbered by small focus groups or large network budgets, of unlimited freedom to realize any concept, character or landscape. The new toons emerging from the Internet are exciting and fresh, and are slowly heading towards the tube. Two recent examples are: Walter Miller’s Home Page, which is being developed as a prime-time cartoon show by Harvey Entertainment after originating on-line; and Starship Regulars, an on-line series, developed by animation website, which Showtime has licensed.

While the above-mentioned are geared to adult audiences, many kid sites are becoming must-see destinations for the preteen crowd. But are any of these webisodes ready for Saturday morning? Can a character or concept successfully develop on the Internet and succeed on network television? And how are web producers and television executives using the Internet to create new kids programming?

‘To us, the web is not only an interesting form of distribution, but it’s an interesting way of extending our research mission,’ says Stephen Gass, group president of on-line services for Sesame Workshop. ‘We can put something up, we can try it, we talk to kids and families about it and learn more about our properties as well. Everything we do is based on family research.’ Joel Andryc, VP of Fox Kids original programming, concurs. ‘Not only is the web a great research tool, but it’s also a great promotional tool.’

Cartoon Network VP of on-line animation Sam Register says, ‘On the web, young animators can have their work seen by a large number of people without going through the television networks,’ adding that ‘network development execs absolutely use the web as a development tool to get an idea of what’s out there. It gives us a wider range of finished or semi-finished product to look at.’

U.K.-based Cosgrove Hall ‘has around 30 new ideas knocking around at any one time,’ says Ian Pelling, managing director, ‘but only six are in production.’ The result is that some ideas are being channeled into digital media first. ‘Even though there is no revenue model at present, it’s clear that things are going that way. We have to gain experience in the other platforms where our target audience might spend time.’

For shows that can’t break into TV slots right away, the ‘on-line first’ approach makes sense for various reasons. For a start, an idea could develop a sufficient following to justify transforming it into a TV concept. ‘It’s not that different from basing a TV idea on a book,’ says U.K.-based Entertainment Rights managing director Jane Smith.

John Bullivant, director of programs at Germany’s TV-Loonland, whose current animation slate includes Fantastic Flying Journey, Little Ghosts, Felix, Cramp Twins and Redwall, picks up the theme. ‘Producers can gain direct access to audiences via the web,’ he says. ‘You can get feedback that might help build a case for pitching to networks. You could also experiment with a show-by offering kids several voices for a character and asking which they prefer.’

For producers big or small, the web is the place to be seen.’s Will Ryan, co-producer and co-writer of the weekly Elmo Aardvark series, has been overwhelmed by the positive reaction his three-minute, family-friendly webtoon has received. ‘We have really caught on with Internet surfers and have received many offers from a large number of major broadcast and cable networks to turn our character into a half-hour show.’

Joel Andryc, VP of Fox Kids original programming, has already greenlit one show as both a series and as test webisodes: Just Stupid, based on an Australian book series about a 12-year-old boy with a passion for practical jokes (‘Think Tom Green in junior high,’ says Andryc). Co-produced with Montreal’s Ciné-Groupe, 26 episodes will launch on Fox Family Channel in summer 2001. Meanwhile, Fox Kids is relaunching its revamped website in the fall with web cartoons based on Just Stupid stories. ‘We are putting webisodes on-line this fall and will get immediate feedback-kids will tell us whether the voices sound right, if the story lines and characters are working… and we can incorporate the feedback into the finished series,’ says Andryc.

‘The priority for Fox right now is to identify five strong properties. We will produce five episodes for each-we’ll be able to voice them and do actual animation. The segments will be between three and five minutes in length. It gives us an opportunity to cast, write stories, and to get a sense of who the characters are, style of animation and art direction.’

Fox Kids Latin America has identified some popular webtoons and has already solidified a deal to incorporate them into the programming schedule. Rolland Ballester, VP of business development of Fox International Entertainment Channels, has just announced a strategic alliance with Stan Lee Media. ‘We are going to take content SLM creates, for example 7th Portal and The Accuser, and adapt both the language tracks and story lines, creating a new kids product for Latin American markets.’

Ballester is also excited about taking the webisodes into other media-namely television. ‘We will be running these shorts on-air, as interstitials, so everyone can enjoy them. And we may put the serialized adventures together and create a half-hour special.’ Ballester also plans to collaborate with Stan Lee Media on further original properties for the Latin American market, with the hopes of creating an international break-out success.

Most networks currently maintain separate development arms for broadcast and on-line activities. As Register notes, ‘When we develop animation for the web, we try to develop cartoons that work really well on-line, whether they have an interactive component or not. Something that may work really well for on-line may not work at all for television.’

Cartoon Network is developing a strong slate of on-line animation. The Web Premiere Toon Shorts are 50 to 60 two-minute shorts currently in production. ‘A few are ready to premiere this fall,’ Register says. ‘A wide range of stuff, new characters and classic characters. We are working with many studios [Wild Brain, Curious Pictures, Spazzco, Funny Garbage, Tom Snyder Productions] and underground cartoonists like Mark Beyer. You’ll see the highest quality of new web cartoons by established players.’

In addition to its original toons, is adapting one of its filmed pilots to the web. ‘We looked at what programming was developing and picked one that could suit our needs’ say Register. ‘Prickles the Cactus represents the first time we’ve taken a character that programming has developed as a broadcast short-Curious Pictures in San Francisco created a great six-minute cartoon for the Network-and developed the character as an on-line cartoon with interactive components. This is Cartoon Network’s first step into characters that are going to live in two places.’

‘Another experiment is The Intruder,’ adds Register. ‘The Intruder is less about animation, but like Prickles, it’s seeing a character in two different environments. It’s an epic adventure, in five episodes, about Tom, the robot host of the Toonami block. We are enhancing his adventures on-line with interactive comic books and gaming.’

Sesame Workshop is preparing to premiere its new series Sagwa, The Chinese Siamese Cat on-line at in early 2001 with short cartoons that will hopefully lead viewers to the forthcoming television series. Co-produced with Ciné-Groupe, Sagwa was commissioned as a 13 x half-hour animated series based on the children’s books by Amy Tan, and is the first of Sesame’s duo-media productions. Later in 2001, Tiny Planets, a pre-science 3-D animated series aimed at ages four to seven, will also debut on-line before its TV premiere.

Sesame’s Gass is particularly excited about Sesame Presents, an on-line exclusive series made up of educational short-form films-some of which were created for Sesame Street and some created for international co-productions-produced and commissioned by CTW during the last 30 years. ‘It’s the finest collection of animation ever amassed for preschoolers,’ Gass boasts. ‘Most animation on the web is very edgy product. The family market and educational content is underserved on-line. We hope to change that.’

While network websites clearly have ambitious plans for their Internet strategies, it’s the independent animators and small studios that are now taking advantage of the web’s creative freedom. Says Will Ryan, ‘I developed Elmo Aardvark on the web because I had a particular vision for this character that would have been lost if I developed it through the usual U.S. television methods.’

Even veteran Looney Tunes animator Chuck Jones is creating new work exclusive to the web. Jones’s Timber Wolf series of shorts, originally designed as theatrical cartoons, have found a home on Entertaindom’s website. Kevin Tsujihara, Warner Bros. VP of new media, says, ‘When we look at this property, we feel it has crossover potential.’

Honing the project, whether to pitch a network or to place on a broadcast schedule, is called development, and that process is making the Internet a vital tool.

‘Once we have the sample episodes up on the web and kids are able to follow along for four or five episodes, they’ll be able to give feedback on which of the ideas they like best. What they like about the characters and the designs…,’ stresses Fox’s Andryc. ‘In focus groups, one problem has been that one kid voices his opinion and becomes the leader that the others follow along. The Internet provides a more accurate gauge of how our cartoon is working.’

Cartoon’s Register is also pleased with his on-line results. ‘The Cartoon Network on-line site is a great way to gauge a cartoon’s popularity, you can count the clicks. The website offers a direct line between the audience and the producer. We do focus group surveys throughout the year, but we can monitor on-line how long the viewer stays on our site.’

* With files from Andy Fry

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