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Producing partnerships

Like many content-driven companies, HIT Entertainment has been beefing up digital extensions of its core brands to stay ahead of the curve. This past spring, with the help of third-party digital firms, HIT redesigned its Thomas & Friends and Angelina Ballerina websites and introduced iPhone/iTouch apps for both properties. The Angelina site in particular now boasts augmented reality technology through which young fans can record themselves dancing and singing alongside their favorite ballerina and then save and send the videos to friends and family. As well, registered site members get a user profile and their own dressing room that can be personalized with customizable content from the site, including their saved game scores and favorite videos. The site also includes a music player with sing-along videos, Angelina games and printable coloring sheets.
September 23, 2010

Like many content-driven companies, HIT Entertainment has been beefing up digital extensions of its core brands to stay ahead of the curve. This past spring, with the help of third-party digital firms, HIT redesigned its Thomas & Friends and Angelina Ballerina websites and introduced iPhone/iTouch apps for both properties. The Angelina site in particular now boasts augmented reality technology through which young fans can record themselves dancing and singing alongside their favorite ballerina and then save and send the videos to friends and family. As well, registered site members get a user profile and their own dressing room that can be personalized with customizable content from the site, including their saved game scores and favorite videos. The site also includes a music player with sing-along videos, Angelina games and printable coloring sheets.

SVP of global brand management and digital media Natasha Fishman says HIT’s digital department oversees the company’s digital strategy and uses in-house creative producers in its US and UK offices to work on both site development and marketing initiatives. However, the company relies on partnering with external service providers to bring the digital know-how and execute strong multimedia projects based on its top-performing TV and publishing brands.

HIT’s situation isn’t unique in the kids TV space. Faced with the ever-growing competitive need to cultivate cutting-edge digital off-shoots of their content, producers are turning in increasing numbers to external experts. And in an attempt to distill the ingredients that combine to make a great digital recipe, we’ve talked to TV producers and broadcasters about how they evaluate potential third-party partners and work together to create cohesive cross-platform experiences.

Pairing up with the experts

‘We don’t look at it as farming things out, we look at it as a partnership,’ says HIT’s Fishman. ‘We’re looking for partners that are equally invested in the success and growth of the industry.’ For Thomas and Angelina’s digital makeovers, Fishman issued an RFP (request for proprosal) and ended up landing New York-based web and mobile developer Mammalfish. Its sister company Whistlebox, meanwhile, brought its propriety webcam platform to the party to further augment the Angelina site. Finally, the company’s mobile arm SmartFish was hired to create the iPhone apps.

What really sealed the deal for Mammalfish was the fact that it presented Fishman with a strategy that exceeded the RFP’s specs. ‘Mammalfish came to us with a broader-reaching strategy,’ says Fishman. ‘It integrated what came out of the initial proposal right into the redesign of the site.’

‘There’s so much competition, and it’s a matter of continuing to provide truly unique experiences in which not only are the kids having fun, but they’re being challenged cognitively in a safe and COPPA-compliant environment,’ says Mammalfish president Michael

LeFort. He adds that the Angelina Ballerina project is the most integrated approach the digital company has yet taken to a kids property.

‘Our job as a technology provider is to say ‘I’ve got this cool technology, let’s come up with 20 ideas of how we can use it and then pick the four that would have the greatest impact’,’ explains Whistlebox CTO Chas Mastin. ‘You realize that the brand is holy and you can’t manipulate that. You just have to find creative ways to make it better.’

The ability to create ‘deeply interactive extensions of TV programming’ is what Toronto, Canada-based Xenophile Media brought to the table when it started work on the online content for Kudos Films and Television’s CBBC series M.I. High and FreshTV’s Total Drama Island.

‘We’re discovering that the kids stuff is very rewarding as a producer because there’s a strong pick-up on kids interactive extensions,’ says Xenophile executive producer Patrick Crowe. He says online extensions of adult shows tend to attract about 10% of their TV audience, whereas kid-focused online offerings, such as the M.I. High site, engage roughly 50% or more of a related TV show’s viewership. For example, Total Drama Island-Totally Interactive!, available in 13 languages in more than 30 countries, now has more than at least 10 million registered players. ‘It’s integrated week by week with the story on TV and gives the viewers something meaningful after they’ve the watched the show, and it keeps them connected to the series,’ says Crowe.

Finding the right match

For the digital provider’s part, gaining the trust of the producer and broadcaster comes from diligently answering RFPs and diving into early consultations, says Crowe. Partners need to get a sense of where the core property owners are coming from and what they want.

‘Be familiar with the bible and respect its values,’ says Crowe. In fact, working closely with a bible on a brand concept is not a stretch, considering much of his staff has worked in TV production at some point. And as an interactive production company, Xenophile has its own writers, creatives and project managers to conceptualize, finance and produce experiences, as opposed to operating purely as a service entity. Besides experience in working with kids content, Crowe says it’s important to look at what a company brings from a business point of view, in terms of financing know-how, as well as its all-important creative and technical expertise.

For Sesame Workshop, finding the right digital partner for The Electric Company was crucial. Though the company has long mastered creating educational content for the preschool set, The Electric Company’s site, which launched last year, had to be attractive and relevant to kids ages six to nine. VP and EP of digital media Miles Ludwig explains that Sesame looked outside the box for a partner and then settled on a small New York-based boutique ad agency, WDDG, that had broad experience speaking to the target demo.

‘We consciously listened to WDDG and followed its lead as far as what web content would be sticky for those kids,’ says Ludwig. ‘And the company didn’t have much experience in educational media, so we needed to be very clear and strong in that direction.’

Sesame’s digital arm, which Ludwig says employs roughly 40 people, is diligent about sending out RFPs for all jobs big or small to between five and 10 vendors, and aims to field at least three bids per project. He adds the department tries out new vendors on a regular basis and keeps rejected RFPs on file for future consideration.

Right now Ludwig is focused in on finding truly established transmedia partners. ‘We’re working on making the connection between Sesame Street and other platforms closely bound,’ says Ludwig. Besides Sesame Wii and DS titles coming out this fall from licensee Warner Bros. Interactive, Ludwig is working on mobile initiatives for the IP and is thinking about the best way to capitalize on kids’ current attraction to the iPad.

In-house advantages

Vancouver-based Nerd Corps president Ken Faier is also mapping out iPad plans for boys comic property League of Super Evil and is on the cusp of deciding whether to bring in a third party or develop the platform using the company’s in-house expertise. L.O.S.E., which bowed on CBBC and Canada’s YTV in 2009 and now airs in 170 countries, rolled out its online offering in four phases, starting with a basic Flash-powered game-packed website.

Nerd Corps had worked successfully with Toronto-based digital firm Bitcasters on its boys action series Storm Hawks, but for L.O.S.E.’s online presence, Faier took a different route and grew the company’s in-house interactive production team as it built up the website. The second phase included an avatar and ‘lair’ creator with a game-point system for purchasing digital assets. Phase three introduced a multi-player, strategy-based trading card game. And phase four, which just came into open beta, includes communication forums where the series’ boisterous characters serve as moderators and encourage game play. This summer the site monetized the trading card game and now accepts micro payments. Visitors can buy batches of points to purchase virtual accessories and accelerate game play. ‘So far, it’s been about getting it stable and to a place where there’s enough compelling content that they will want to buy points,’ says Faier.

Though Nerd Corps employs its own web/game programmers, the iPad platform, which doesn’t support Flash, opens up a whole new can of digital worms that might require getting its in-house team up to speed on Apple programming and/or bringing in a third party. ‘We want to break it down and see if it’s worth being able to do it here,’ Faier says.

Having some of the interactive work done in-house, however, gives Nerd Corps an idea of exactly how modifications in the production of digital extensions affect the bottom line. ‘A certain feature might require more art and coders that could drive your budget up by US$400,000, for example – and if you don’t have the expertise, you won’t get that foresight,’ says Faier.

Broadcaster relations

From a broadcaster’s perspective, getting channel-specific details ironed out on digital extensions/applications is an important part of a project’s kick-off. And YTV’s director of kids interactive Caitlin O’Donovan sets partner/producer guidelines at the very outset that detail how the digital will be delivered, hosted and operated. Some of the points O’Donovan covers are membership systems, video streaming requirements, user-generated content, and open chat and other community functions.

Overseeing the interactive of the kids group, which includes YTV, Treehouse and Nickelodeon Canada sites, as well as Nelvana Studios, O’Donovan says she’s collaborated on and initiated interactive plans for IPs from all different angles. Besides producing standard web fare in-house, including websites, games and wallpapers, the interactive arm also refers TV producers to a roster of digital producers and sends out RFPs for service work on jobs like mobile applications and iApps. O’Donovan says the main criteria for selecting partners comes down to quality of work and ability to deliver on time.

‘We’ll talk to producers about the kinds of partners they might want to look at. If we’re pitched properties that are huge in scope and vision, it’s always exciting to start a project from that perspective,’ says O’Donovan.

Xenophile’s Crowe says he’s seen several instances where the impetus for the project comes directly from the broadcaster, rather than the producer. In the case of M.I. High, Crowe says BBC Children’s interactive department drove the development of the online component that was hatched during a meeting with the broadcaster. He pitched the idea for an interactive online game with content that would weave in and out of the TV series and let kids participate in weekly missions with the series’ teen spies. Xenophile worked with M.I. High’s prodco Kudos to shoot new original footage of the cast during regular filming and then developed plot points and character crossovers with the online game. Crowe says Kudos also loaned Xenophile its producer and one of M.I.’s writers to review the online component’s dialogue and make sure it matched the tone of the series.

Crowe makes a point of staying on top of a broadcaster-led initiative as much as possible without stepping on toes. ‘You can’t assume that broadcasters know what to do with the interactive product that you’ve just created,’ says Crowe. ‘So we’re always happy to work closely with a broadcaster that has invested substantially in a property.’

In terms of revenue models, Crowe says that Xenophile’s work ranges from charging straight service fees to ownership in which it shares the interactive property’s distribution revenues. ‘We’re making an experience for viewers that provides unique content that broadcasters can license and bring to viewers from TV onto the online space,’ says Crowe.

It’s all about the promo

When talking to producers about how their digital initiatives will jibe with the broadcaster’s vision for a property, O’Donovan says she looks for elements that will drive visitors and engagement, such as video streams and game play. So the good news is broadcasters don’t tend to look for massive virtual-world-type applications and often want companion digital content that can sit in the channel site’s games section or social community area.

‘Don’t invest 80% of your budget into making a huge website; invest 80% into content that we can put other places and use to promote the brand,’ says O’Donovan. Her department worked with Nerd Corps to develop L.O.S.E. Flash games that can be pulled out of the website and act as stand-alones on YTV.com. One game featured on the channel’s Game Drop Wednesday online schedule ended up as a top-rated title for almost three months.

O’Donovan also pushes producers to work with their digital providers on a content plan to make sure kids come back regularly. For example, new Nelvana series Beyblade: Metal Fusion comes with 52 ready-to-go online content packs for broadcasters that pick up the series. An easy-to-use content management system accompanies the digital packs to make sure that even small channels can rotate the material and have something interesting on their Beyblade web pages every single week. ‘So often they launch the content and consider it done, but there needs to be a call to action to keep kids’ attention and keep promoting the show,’ says O’Donovan.

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