When US pubcaster PBS was casting about for a partner with whom to build an immersive online world for its kids brand, it almost immediately zeroed in on a company that had recently designed cutting-edge sites for The Doodlebops, Caillou and Di-Gata Defenders – Montreal, Canada’s Tribal Nova. And the result of their intense 18-month collaboration is PBS Kids Play!, an online subscription-based service for three- to six-year-olds that went live on March 15.
It’s a project that Pierre Lelann, co-founding partner of Tribal Nova, says surpassed his expectations. ‘We came up with a product that was way better than what we first imagined,’ he says, explaining that over the development period, the immersive aspects of the service multiplied. ‘It’s really way more dense than what’s out there now.’
For instance, the original concept has been bolstered with an application that doles out collectible awards for the completion of game levels and another that saves or bookmarks interactive projects.
Clicking around the colorful and vibrant text-free online environments that make up the program serve to prove Lelann’s assertion. With the PBS Kids mascot as an initial guide, the service takes over the full screen, while easy-drag functionality with a large cursor and obvious icons invite kids to watch eps of shows like The Berenstain Bears, or play games such as Curious George to the Rescue. The clean and simple design makes the universe of content on the site accessible to even the youngest sliver of the target demo. ‘Our approach was that the user should explore the world,’ says Lelann. ‘They can do what they want, watch the videos they want, play the games they want.’
Using all of PBS Kids’ high-profile properties, which include Curious George, Super Why!, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Franny’s Feet and Mama Mirabelle’s Home Movies, the service is built around a full curriculum for preschoolers and kindergarten students, something that differentiates it from other preschool services, according to Ben Grimley, senior director of interactive businesses at PBS. Each activity has been developed specifically to address a recognized McREL (Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning) standard, in accordance with PBS’s own Childhood Development Tracker that guides the network’s linear programming. ‘It’s based on nationally recognized standards,’ says Grimley. ‘It really covers seven major core curriculum areas, including math, science, language, literacy, creativity and social studies.’
Of course, when you ask parents to actually shell out for an online experience – in this case US$9.95 a month or US$79.95 a year – you have to make sure you can deliver more goods than the millions of free sites out there operated by players like Disney Playhouse and Nick Jr. In today’s market, that means tons of content and going way beyond base interactivity. In both cases, Lelann believes the partnership has succeeded, thanks to a long list of technological breakthroughs that work to enhance not only the interactivity of the site, but also its educational value.
For instance, Tribal Nova designed a recommendation algorithm that tracks the user’s progress on games and activities and suggests new ones that fit their particular skill level. As well, the environment is largely customizable; if the user is a big Curious George fan, then the little monkey can be set as their site guide. And contrary to the sedentary nature of online activities, PBS Kids Play! allows parents to program a ‘Take a Break’ feature that limits session lengths and forces kids to take breaks from sitting in front of the monitor.
But Lelann expects that the site’s interactive functionality will take a backseat to good old-fashioned streaming content. ‘There are more than 100 episodes embedded,’ he says. ‘And this isn’t old catalogue shows; this is stuff that is on-air now. I don’t know another network that is doing that.’
While PBS and Tribal Nova remain tight-lipped about budgets and targets, Grimley described the project as a major initiative for the network, and one that is certainly on the front burner in terms of investment and priority.