Keeping up with the pod people: Kidcasters latch on to a red-hot new content platform

If you're even slightly tapped in to the on-line world, then the term podcasting has surely popped up on your radar. What started as an extension of the blogosphere has exploded into an internet phenomenon embraced by technophiles and entertainment providers alike, and it's making quick tracks in the kids market already.
October 1, 2005

If you’re even slightly tapped in to the on-line world, then the term podcasting has surely popped up on your radar. What started as an extension of the blogosphere has exploded into an internet phenomenon embraced by technophiles and entertainment providers alike, and it’s making quick tracks in the kids market already.

Podcasts are audio MP3 files that can be downloaded automatically to a PC or media device. Once users subscribe to a podcasting service, free web software searches the internet for the latest ‘casts available and dumps them into a folder on the user’s computer in a form that’s already prepped to play on a portable MP3 device.

‘The scope is quite endless,’ says Leisa Sadler, COO for Nickelodeon Australia, which began podcasting in August. ‘It really started with updates of current affairs programming, but now it’s become a form of entertainment rather than just a tool for providing information.’ She says the format’s popularity with kids can be chalked up to their demand for on-the-go entertainment and short snippets they can listen to anywhere and easily share with friends.

Disney was first off the mark in the U.S. this June, launching four products to coincide with the unveiling of Apple’s iTunes podcast service. Disney Insider is a weekly podcast and newsletter with articles about pretty much anything going on in the Mouse House, such as upcoming movies and events, Disney history and theme park updates. Along the same lines is Gears Behind the Ears, which delivers two- to three-minute profiles of the creative talent working behind the scenes at Disney – for example, the ‘imagineers’ who redesigned Space Mountain at DisneyLand. Radio Disney Now! features audio highlights of on-air content like interviews, and Last Minute Book Reports are fast and funny retellings of classic books such as Don Quixote and War and Peace.

Jodie Resnick, VP of agency services at the Walt Disney Internet Group, says at the time these services launched, there wasn’t a whole lot of dedicated kids content out there, and the market is still in a nascent phase. But there is demand – Gears debuted as one of iTunes’ top-10 downloads, and all four Disney offerings consistently rate in the top 30.

Resnick anticipates at least three more kid feeds launching within the next couple of months. At this point, the company is focusing entirely on non-fiction, though as the format matures, opportunities to do original content may be explored.

In September, Nickelodeon started releasing podcasts tied to new Zoey 101 episodes as they went to air on TV, beefed up with exclusive cast interviews.

Internationally, Nick Australia has been leading the pack, with content tied to its afternoon show Sarvo. With every download, kids get a behind-the-scenes blog written by hosts James and Dave, as well as celebrity interviews and a code word to unlock free mobile phone content. Sarvo’s podcasts average 1,200 downloads, and Sadler says Nick is looking closely at new ways to expand in the sector, including longer-form content and serial dramas or comedies. Starting with Sarvo was an obvious choice, she says, because it’s easy to pull snippets from the show that work in an audio-only format, and the hosts connect well with 10- to 14-year-olds, a demo that tends to embrace this type of high-tech delivery.

One of the biggest advantages to podcasting is the fact that it costs peanuts in comparison with other forms of production. ‘The content is already there,’ Sadler says. ‘The boys are in the studio and can do specific tracks, but it’s no additional cost for us on top of what they’re already doing. It’s really just editing it down or taking different grabs and splicing them together.’

The investment will come in if the net decides to produce original content like series, and Sadler says Nick is currently determining exactly how much it’s willing to spend in this space. Though she hasn’t been approached by production companies or content creators yet, Sadler feels it’s only a matter of time before that happens.

Fellow Aussie Amy Nelson, producer of children’s on-line for ABC New Media and Digital Services, agrees that portability is a big part of what’s driving the trend. While ABC isn’t likely to venture into kid-targeted podcasting until early next year, Nelson’s team is already blueprinting various plans to expand both broadcast and on-line content from the channel’s blocks for preschoolers (Playground) and tweens (RollerCoaster).

‘One issue we’ll need to overcome is rights – not all of our existing content has clearance to be podcast,’ she says. ‘So this is where we might end up creating new content that can be podcast and delivered on other platforms as well.’ For example, ABC would like to offer podcasts as an extension of its Playground Radio service, whereby parents could download songs and stories directly to portable players.

Nelson says ABC has been conducting focus groups and on-line polls to determine what content will work best, and is kicking around the idea of providing a service with music, stories and features designed specifically for the preschool demo. The net will also bring on early-learning development experts to help shape this content.

For older kids and tweens, the feeds would feature fan-based content such as interviews with the cast of flagship TV shows like Blue Water High, or their favorite bands. ABC is also keen to turn the spotlight outward, and plans to have an area where kids can submit their own podcasts showcasing bands they play in or fiction they’ve written.

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