At last, someone has figured out a way to sponsor Santa's approach to millons of childrens' chimneys across the globe.
The jolly old elf known as St. Nick has in the past appeared to shun commercial backing, with nary a promotional logo or entreaty to be found on his sleigh or reindeer trappings, but AT&T has devised a Santa-tracking TV channel that puts a marketer into the wintry holiday mix.
For three years, AT&T 's U-Verse video-distribution system has offered an interactive "Santa-tracking" channel aimed at getting kids and families to build a relationship with the still-growing network (which currently serves around 3.6 million customers). Kids can track themselves on a naughty-or-nice list, play games, sing along with holiday-themed music, and, when they wish, watch an ersatz news report that purports to give the latest updates on that popular man with the bowl-of -jelly-like belly who delivers toys and presents every Christmas Eve (it's updated weekly as the channel launches after Thanksgiving, and then hourly on the night before Christmas).
During certain moments of the interactive application, kids can also see promotions from The Hub, the kiddie-themed cable channel that is jointly owned by Hasbro Corp. and Discovery Communications.
"Our branding is minimal. We wanted to make sure the experience was really playful," said Greg Heanue, VP-marketing and promotions. "There's a 'Happy Holiday' message from The Hub with a few of our characters. "Users can also play a few games, one of which allows for the reshuffling of tiles until a Hub figure is unveiled.
Tracking Santa via electronic means is an old idea, once done via paid-for telephone updates or even through the North American Aerospace Defense Command's annual Santa Claus-tracking website, found at www.noradsanta.org. But the AT&T U-verse effort is notable for what it says about TV's evolution. No longer is the television for couch potatoes -- it can instead be used to stimulate two-way conversation and interaction between pieces of content and the people viewing them.
The techniques AT&T are using are similar to that used by various cable, satellite and telecommunications-based video distributors to offer so-called "branded channels,"or roosts on a set-top box that bring subscribers access to video, offers and other information from paying sponsors. Cablevision Systems has also offered such things, including one channel that lets subscribers schedule a phone call with a Walt Disney operative who could help discuss and formulate travel plans to one of the company's theme parks.
AT&T originally devised its Santa TV-app as part of an effort to get subscribers more interested in its services, said G.W. Shaw, executive director of marketing for AT&T U-verse. "If a customer uses an app, that customer is more likely to stay with us," he said. Those aimed at children often prompt the kids to start chatting about it, which reaches the ears of the parents, often paying the bill for the service.
AT&T has seen strong response to its Santa hunt. "We were really surprised at the usage we got on this application," said Mr. Shaw. "This one really took us by surprise. We have over 40% of our customers in the past year who have used this application and over 30% of them who use it all on Christmas Eve." Rapt followers with visions of sugarplums dancing in their heads can see 24 different news reports on Christmas Eve.