Cartoon Site Sends Brand Into Orbit

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Cartoon Network is quietly beta-testing a new Web site that lets fans collect and trade their favorite animated characters in the same way that kids trade baseball or Pokémon cards.

The online franchise, called "Cartoon Orbit," is set for a splashier consumer debut later this year. Cartoon has even hired a "toononomist"-sort of an Alan Greenspan of the online world-to set prices for the different characters available for trade, Cartoon Network Online senior producer Justin Williams said.

The Orbit site launched in beta mode with 250 cartoon characters, and the company plans to add 30 or 40 more each month. Characters will be offered as limited editions; eventually, some will be pulled from the mix.

Each newly registered trader is given a certain number of points with which to buy online characters from the Cartoon library, such as the Powerpuff Girls, Pebbles Flintstone, Bugs Bunny or Scooby-Doo.

Some cartoons will be more rare than others, and thus become more valuable over time. One of the original representations of Dino from
The Flintstones
, for example, barks and wags his tail, while other characters are silent.

"We wanted to amortize the huge cartoon library from Time Warner," said Cartoon Network Online senior vice president and creative director Sam Register.

The points system allows Cartoon to reward regular visitors without collecting personal information, such as names and addresses. Keeping things safe for young Netizens was a top priority in designing the Cartoon Orbit community, Register said.

Electronic-mail messages are sent to new registrants' parents if kids are under 13. Cartoon Network Online does not send marketing messages to the e-mail addresses collected through the site.

Orbit members will be able to visit one another's personally constructed sub-sites or communicate to suggest trades, but there's no open chat feature available. All interactions are handled through pull-down menus to help protect children's privacy.

Kids can vote on each other's "cZone"-the individual sites created with the Cartoon backdrops they've chosen and the collection of characters they've bought or won through trades. Those with the highest-rated cZones receive additional points.

Cartoon Network Online conducted several focus-group tests to see how kids interacted with the new Web site.

"We live on the pulse of what kids think of this," Williams said. "We've made changes within 48 hours" in response to some of the focus groups.

Cartoon Network plans to help promote Cartoon Orbit on-air. The cable network will display special codes that can be used to win extra points online.

"This will help benefit [advertising] sponsors who have integrated promotions between online and on-air," Cartoon Network Online general manager Jim Samples said.

Although Cartoon Orbit will first launch in the U.S., the company plans to expand the Web site throughout the world. That would allow kids here to make trades with cartoon fans in Japan and Europe, for example.

Because the site uses pull-down communications menus, it can be easily translated to allow kids to trade with those who speak foreign languages.

Today, CartoonNetwork.com operates sites in 14 other languages, Williams noted. He expects Cartoon Orbit to launch outside the U.S. by the end of next year.

Further down the road, Cartoon Orbit could also expand into new technology platforms.

"Ultimately, you could have a kid on a cellular phone in Japan trading with a kid on his PC in Wichita," said Sample.

And Turner Broadcasting System and its parent Time Warner Inc. could expand the Orbit concept to the company's other networks, Register predicted, bringing the online trading economy to a sports site, for example.

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