The Internet may be the great equalizer when it comes to launching new animation, but one major conundrum remains: With a medium that’s so vast and accessible to everyone, how do you make sure your toons get viewed? Broadband service providers could be the answer.
Broadband continues to march steadily into more North American households each year, and research firm eMarketer predicts that penetration will hit 76.9 million homes by 2008. In order to stake out more turf in a market that will eventually get a lot of business from families, service providers such as AOL, Comcast and Yahoo! are expanding and improving their on-line real estate for kids. And clueing into the fact that animation can be a major traffic-driving device, they’ve started to sign content deals with the likes of Disney, 4Kids and DIC.
When you consider the sheer variety of options for character-based web applications – games and activities, comics, chat sites, wallpaper and on-line books are just a few – these portals seem like ideal places to launch properties and build brands. And their reach is nothing to sneeze at either.
Just a year and a half old, AOL’s kids portal KOL now averages 3.5 million unique hits each month. The site boasts a broad range of content from Time Warner companies including Cartoon Network, Kids’ WB! and Sports Illustrated for Kids. But in October, KOL signed its first major third-party deal with 4Kids Entertainment, which had provided the site with bits and pieces of licensed content on a semi-exclusive basis in the past. ‘We wanted to take the partnership to the next level, so we’ve created a branded on-line world where all of 4Kids’ main properties can live,’ says Malcolm Bird, AOL’s senior VP and GM of kids and teens. ‘It’s a good promotional platform for them, and we get great content.’
4Kids chairman and CEO Al Kahn says the KOL deal is phase one of a larger strategy to increase the company’s on-line presence, and he’s already in discussions with other service providers to forge similar partnerships. ‘They’re all looking for content because that’s still the driver,’ Kahn says, adding that potential partners need to have enough brand awareness to drive traffic and subscription sales.
The 4Kids area of KOL is a bit experimental because it marks the first time AOL has offered full-length episodes to its subscribers on-demand. Rainbow’s Winx Club is the guinea pig show, and after each episode airs on TV, kids can watch them on-line for free, with three episodes available at any given time. The shows are dealt out in shorter 10-minute clips because some computers are slower to download than others, and because kids tend to have shorter attention spans for watching cartoons on-line.
The KOL partnership is all part of Kahn’s plan to let kids access his content on their own terms. ‘I can’t run shows around the clock like Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon can,’ says Kahn, whose 4Kids.TV block airs for four hours on Saturday and Sunday mornings. ‘I need a way to reach kids when they want to be reached, and websites give them the opportunity to go to 4Kids.TV anytime they want.’
But even conglomerates with 24-hour nets are getting into the game in response to the impact web usage has had on kids TV ratings across the board. When Comcast launched its kids broadband site in October, Disney quickly signed up to lend its content and brand power to a dedicated section called Disney Connection. And like 4Kids, the House of Mouse doesn’t plan to stop there.
‘We have a few more deals coming, and we also have a rollout plan to cover the footprint of cable and broadband distribution over the next several years,’ says Steve Parkis, VP of premium products for Disney Online.
Along with interactive content and games, Disney Connection is packed with short-form content including interstitials, video clips, extras from movies and series, and full-length cartoon shorts from the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s. Parkis says his division is working on sorting out the Internet rights to several new series Disney has acquired for its various TV platforms. But at this point, the site doesn’t offer full episodes. Parkis explains that Disney currently runs its VOD programming through digital cable, but the company hasn’t settled on an on-line model yet.
Since Internet rights are low on Disney Channel’s priority list when it acquires new series, Parkis is determined to forge ahead and pick up original programming of his own. Though nothing is signed yet, he’s in discussions with several producers and is open to pitches across all genres and age demos. ‘This is a nascent market right now,’ says Parkis, adding that it’ll likely take anywhere from two to five years to figure out what kind of original content works best for broadband. ‘In the interim, that means a lot of experimentation and risk-taking, and that’s creatively exciting to me.’ The beauty of testing new concepts in a web environment is that you get results almost immediately by tracking web hits, and there’s also a direct line of feedback from the target audience through chat and e-mail functions.
Operating under the Disney umbrella also doesn’t hurt. If an animated web series turns out to be a runaway hit on-line, Disney, with its myriad resources, can capitalize on that heat quickly in other media.
KOL is heading down that path already. The company plans to launch a full off-line consumer products program later this year for its first original web series Princess Natasha, about a young royal who also works as a spy. The package of 20 x five-minute shorts from New York’s Animation Collective has generated more than a million views since its 2003 launch. And when you factor in the property’s site-wide presence in promotional tags, activities, books, games, printables and special holiday-themed sections, Bird is pretty confident that every single kid who logs onto KOL interacts with Natasha in some way. Though the exact timing of the merch rollout isn’t nailed down yet, Bird is planning a coordinated launch across all major categories – including toys, apparel, books and home entertainment – and is currently shoring up licensees.
Obviously, funding isn’t as bountiful for on-line programming as it is for TV projects, but Bird stresses that the advantage of building an original IP on-line is that you can easily cross the character over into several different interactive platforms. He’s committed to adding at least 50 new episodes of original content this year from his existing library and from new acquisitions, and he’s open to pitches anytime.
Another webtoon from Animation Collective called Squad will join KOL in April, starring a group of skateboarding students who are part of a secret organization formed to fight crime. The series’ 20 eps clock in at 11 minutes each because Bird is experimenting with a slightly longer format for original concepts.
Animation Collective CEO Larry Schwarz is no stranger to creating for the web, having launched Rumpus.com in the mid ’90s. But he says there’s a big difference between launching a property independently versus on KOL. ‘The Internet allows anyone to be a broadcaster, but how do you monetize that, and how do you get an audience?’ he asks. ‘KOL is able to market its on-line programming in a variety of ways, so it’s a really viable platform.’