Ask why so many kids' programmers are adding broadband to the mix, and the answer is reminiscent of Willie Sutton's famous quote about banks. “That's where the audience is,” says Mike Skagerlind, senior vice president and general manager of Nickelodeon Online. “If we're not there, we're not as relevant to them.”
Last July, Nickelodeon launched a new broadband site called TurboNick that has already logged more than 23 million streams. Fare ranging from The X's, about a family of super-spies, to popular cartoons like SpongeBob SquarePants entertain the younger set, while older kids can tune into behind-the-scenes footage from shows like Zoey 101.
Skagerlind says some 90% of Nickelodeon's viewers are broadband-enabled. That's not the only statistic emphasizing how vital broadband content is to brands that target the youth market. Forrester Research reports that about 36% of people ages 12 to 21 now use instant messaging, own their own mobile phone, and have a broadband connection at home.
In fact, that's nearly three times greater than the percentage of online adults using that trio of services. And according to Nielson Net Ratings, 18.2 million kids ages 6 to 14 were online as of September 2005.
“It's a large inflection point,” says Ben White, vice president of digital media for MTV Networks, which has reported continued growth of its MTV Overdrive broadband music-video service featuring everything from MTV News to Total Request Live.
In October, MTVN launched college-focused mtvU Über — its first service distributed entirely via broadband. The channel features interviews with bands like Spoon and Green Day, as well as more serious fare, such as an “Activism” channel that includes clips from a student-produced documentary about human-rights abuses in Sudan.
“When people look back in the history books, they'll say that 2005 and 2006 were the years that everybody got into this — because they had to,” White says.
Quentin Orr, a director in PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP's Entertainment and Media Practice, says networks are “treading very lightly” into broadband so as not to disturb relations with cable and satellite distributors. Carriage deals generally restrict simulcasting on another medium, such as the Internet.
As a result, most programmers are looking to short-form video clips and other supplemental content to drive young eyeballs to their Web sites while not detracting from the TV audience.
At the same time, “you have to remember the [broadband] platform is not television,” executive vice president and managing director of Disney Online Ken Goldstein says. “The platform is interactive, I don't want to just put a bunch of video on the Web.”
Much of Disney's broadband strategy hinges on partnerships with distributors. In October 2004, it agreed to provide its “Disney Connection” slate of youth- and family-oriented content to Comcast Corp.'s broadband portal. That was followed by deals with Adelphia Communications Corp. and Mediacom Communications Corp. Goldstein says Disney expects to provide broadband content to Verizon Communications Inc. in 2006.
Disney Connection offers everything from grassroots video segments like “Cool Pets,” in which children talk about their animal pals, to slicker fare such as Krystal Harris' music video for the song “Supergirl,” which was used in the Disney movie, The Princess Diaries.
“We have a bit of a tween focus,” Goldstein says. “But over time, we see the programming being more focused on the whole family.”
Indeed, Disney's “Family Fun TV” Web site already offers up video clips in the two-to-four-minute range, suggesting fun activities for parents and kids. Recent how-to segments touch on everything from creating holiday “mini-wreaths” and “jingle bell bracelets” to a clip on how to make “marshmallow Pilgrim hats.”
Some programmers are providing long-form content online. Fans of Comcast Corp.-owned network G4, which covers the interactive and youth-skewed world of video games, tend to “like short, digestible chunks of content, so that's what we're offering right now,” says G4 vice president of strategic programming and media alliances Lauren de la Fuente.
But as programmers move beyond cable television and into the wild jungle of the World Wide Web, they are finding fierce and more diverse competition for those eyeballs — especially when it comes to content aimed at the youth market.
One example of that is MySpace.com, which marries social networking with a mix of music and video content. The service skews toward teens and young adults, many of whom post every detail about themselves without any privacy fears. Such sites increasingly include broadband-video content and advertising.
“I think we're going to see an explosion in competition,” says Adam Clayton Powell, director of the Integrated Media Systems Center at the University of Southern California's School of Engineering. “You don't have to have a channel to get into that game.”
At the same time, programmers are teaming with independent Web creators. For example, G4 works with online gaming site GameSpot, and Comedy Central recently picked up the indie Web cartoon Odd Todd for its “MotherLoad” venture.
On a larger scale, big programmers are primarily in competition with big Web portals and other content aggregators when it comes to broadband video. But they also have advantages.
“The big advantage for Disney and MTV is that they have a huge number of people coming to their TV channels,” says Powell. “So they have a huge platform to promote their online content.”
Branded content providers also have another potential trump card, especially when it comes to young children: trust and safety. “Parents know that we're safe,” says Nickelodeon Online's Skagerlind. “There's a lot of stuff out there that's not appropriate for kids.”
One example is the popular broadband Web cartoon, Happy Tree Friends, in which cute forest animals mutilate and torture one another in creative ways. This dark adult humor is meant to poke fun at kiddy cartoons, but such nuances can be lost on children who run across it.
Still, indie Web content remains a factor, with skyrocketing broadband penetration possibly moving more video content away from cable brands and “closer to the Yahoos, the Googles and the Skypes,” says Phil Thomas, chief technology officer at Irvine, Calif.-based QUAD, whose new “converged delivery platform” can enable more than 7,500 independent 1-Megabit per second simultaneous broadband streams.
And who will receive many of those streams? “The early deployments are greatest in the youth market,” Thomas says. “You see a whole new generation that has been raised without fear of computers or fear of digital media.”