Okay, it seems like forever that you've been hearing about the broadening of the information pipeline, the ballyhooed marriage of television and the Web, and speculation on whether the united couple will set up residence in the PC or the TV. But what will this converged media look like, and who will it reach, anyway?
That, of course, is the $64,000 question. While the networks and advertisers are anxiously waiting for wide availability of broadband, which will improve speed and interactivity tenfold, no one wants to be left back in the dinosaur age of pre-interactive TV. So various prototypes and demos are now being produced and shown on nascent interactive television platforms like those of Wink Communications and Microsoft's WebTV Plus. And content providers are mulling over what types of programming will be best suited to interactivity. Experts believe that one of the obvious choices is children's shows.
"In many ways we've been producing interactive television for years, so adding the keyboard is a natural," says Tina Sharkey, vice president and general manager of Children's Television Workshop (CTW) Online, which is currently testing an interactive Sesame Street that will run on WebTV Plus. In the demo, Muppet mainstay Bert explains his passion for the number six to Ernie by launching into a show tune extolling the number's virtues. Meanwhile, the image of the two characters can be shrunk by the viewer using a handheld remote, and pushed into a corner of the screen, in order to make room for loading Sesame Street Web pages. The opening page offers parents and children a choice between doing a letter or number exercise. If the latter is selected-by clicking on the screen with a mouse-coloring-book pages with a Sesame Street character and the number six can be printed out, to be colored in later, or while watching the show. But what if kids and parents don't click? "Preschoolers don't give their undivided attention to the Web or TV, so if you give them more than one way in, you get more of their attention," Sharkey says. "If Bert and Ernie are singing a song about the number six, and kids are engaged, it's great. The show is direct experience. The Web is complementary."
What CTW and other producers of interactive television programming have found is that children make virtually no distinction between the Web and television. A study of the media preferences and usage of 4,000 Americans aged 4 and up by MTV Networks last spring found that, though technically sophisticated convergence may not yet be here, convergent behavior in kids has arrived.
That behavior is defined as using all media on a more or less equal level, choosing which to use because of content, and frequently using media simultaneously. "The study reflected something that we were seeing with kids," says Kris Bagwell, vice president of Nickelodeon Mediaworks, which produces Web sites thematically linked to the network's television programming. "In a recent focus group looking at the usability of a Web site, kids saw so little difference between the PC and TV-the experience was essentially the same," Bagwell says. "They'd watch the show and continue the show on the PC." That phenomenon apparently drove a tenfold increase in users for Nickelodeon's 1997 "Kids Choice Awards." Some 400,000 votes were cast through the Nick Web site after the televised awards show aired. That number increased to 4.5 million this past year, according to Bagwell. He is now developing a prototype for interactive versions of Nickelodeon television with Intel's Intercast technology, which includes a card that plugs into a PC, enabling it to receive television programming. "If you like Rugrats you can set something on the bottom of the screen and it will pop up and tell you when the show's on," Bagwell says. "You can also grab the screen, freeze it, and draw on it. Were we to roll out [interactive programming], we would pick a few shows-like Rugrats-[with characters] that come out and say, 'Hey if you have Intercast, you can click during this show.'"
The Disney Channel has its eye on the future as well. It produces Zoog Disney, a television show linked to a Web site by the same name. The hosts of the show are animated characters that zip around the screen singing a pop tune in perky computer-generated voices about the "zether," the place between the TV and computer. With the tagline, "it's not TV you watch, it's TV you do," the show is constantly referring to the Web, television, and its own site. While Disney Channel executives say there are no plans in the works to produce completely interactive television, Disney Television did produce an interactive version of the Easter Parade last year, but won't talk about any future projects at this time.
Whether Intel, Wink, WebTV or some other system becomes the dominant platform, the number of young eyeballs waiting for interactive television is impressive. "Kids are the original multitaskers," says Betsy Frank, executive vice president of research and development for MTV Networks. "They have all the tools in their rooms. They're like fortified strongholds with everything they need never to leave the room." An MTV/ Yankelovich study found that almost two-thirds of 12-to-17-year-olds who have their own bedroom have a TV there, 57 percent have a cable or satellite hook-up, 50 percent have a phone, and 43 percent have their own VCR. By the end of 1998, Forrester Research projects that WebTV Plus will reach 350,000 homes. Another 100,000 to 300,000 homes will have PCs outfitted with Intel's Intercast technology, Forrester predicts. And by the turn of the century, 11 million homes-about one-tenth of all those with a television-will contain some kind of interactive television platform, according to IDC Research.
Considering the potential reach of interactive television and what heavy consumers of media children are, the amount of kids programming currently in development is small. "Parents are very concerned about the extent to which children are exposed to inappropriate content," says Nick Donatiello, president and CEO of Odyssey Research in San Francisco. But it's not just program content that concerns parents, or having their kids give out personal information to strangers, but their vulnerability to advertisers: Forrester believes that successful interactive television will be "lazy interactivity," in which impulse purchases and responses will be the primary motivators for clicking. "Targeting kids' impulses raises antennas of people who fear they'll be exploited," says Josh Bernoff, an analyst with Forrester. A handful of services designed to make surfing interactive television safe for children are currently available.
But since spending by and for children ages 4 to 12 totaled some $24 billion in 1997, according to a study by James McNeal, a professor at Texas A&M University, it can't be long before hungry advertisers begin to clamor for more programming. Disney has chosen not to run commercials on the Disney Channel, but CTW shows include a few advertisements, and Nick's Web site has several links to advertiser pages, including a GapKids site where kids can dress virtual paper dolls and get product information. "From a branding standpoint," says Jayne Greenberg, vice president of Media for Gap Marketing, "Nick.com is a great place for us to be in that it's an innovative, exciting, and fun Web site just for kids."
And if companies figure out how to reach today's convergent kids via interactive television, they may have found the key to reaching consumers throughout their life cycles. "We've got to watch this group very carefully," says MTV's Frank, "because how they behave as they move into adulthood will be critical. Will realities like school, work, and getting married change their facility with all types of media? I think a lot of this new behavior is going to persist into adulthood."