The promotion, called "Slime Time Sweepstakes," is named after what children most associate with the cable TV network: the act of sliming someone-in other words, dumping sticky, slimy gunk on someone's head.
Here's the "Slime Time" scoop. Each weeknight for two weeks last July, four kids played a game live from their homes on an AT&T videophone. On Saturdays, three kids played during a party at their local McDonald's (McDonald's Corp. was a co-sponsor, along with Sega of America).
After seeing a video clip of a Nickelodeon show character, the kid on the videophone got two chances to find a matching character hidden behind one of eight numbered squares pictured on the TV. Winners got prizes like Sega videogame cartridges, a trip to Universal Studios Florida and an AT&T cordless phone. Losers got their image electronically "slimed" on screen, but still got a Sega Game Gear unit.
Kids tuned in nightly to watch the game unfold during 60-second commercial breaks.
Nickelodeon has added more interactivity to the promotion each year. In the first year, 1991, kids played the game over regular telephones while their picture appeared on screen. In 1992, Nickelodeon added the videophone capability. And last year the ca ble network decided to let kids register through an interactive 800-number instead of sending in postcards.
"One of the things that we are particularly sensitive to at Nickelodeon is keeping in touch with kids' lives," said Pam van der Lee, VP-ad sales and promotion marketing. "Kids are much more exposed to technology [today] . . . We felt that we needed to explore some more interactive promotions to stay current and appeal to them," she said.
The promotion, said Ms. van der Lee, answered every kid's dream-to be on TV. It also drove ratings up 20%.
"What we have been doing so far is trying to figure out ways of using simple technology in a way that our viewers can understand and relate to," Ms. van der Lee said. "We are always looking at ways to make it even more interactive and incorporate more technology that will enhance the experience."
The decision to let kids enter via interactive 800-number paid off well for Nickelodeon-almost too well. Nickelodeon got 12 million call attempts during the sweepstakes entry period last June. But of those calls, Nickelodeon could take only 600,000 entries.
"It comes down to budget and what we could afford," Ms. van der Lee said of the 800-number, handled by West Interactive, Omaha, Neb. "We said we could definitely accept 600,000 calls."
Also, Nickelodeon had to work closely with the long distance carrier to schedule times to promote the 800-number on-screen. Otherwise, there was the risk of clogging access for other people who just wanted to use their phone.
But the interactivity also helped build Nickelodeon's database.
"We know the people who are calling, we know their age, we know their gender, how long they were on the line [and] how many times they called," said Andrew Batkin, president-creative director of Hermosa Beach, Calif.-based Creative Services Group, which worked with Nickelodeon on the promotion.
The videophones also proved a challenge, because Nickelodeon had to distribute them to all the kids, explain how to use them and get them to respond correctly when their time in the spotlight came.
"When we were first considering the videophones, we almost didn't do it because we were afraid the quality wouldn't be good enough," Ms. van der Lee said. "But the fact that you can get a kid live on television we felt far outweighed the down side."
This year, Nickelodeon plans to add even more interactivity to the promotion. While final details haven't been determined, Ms. van der Lee said the network is looking at ways to let more players participate, possibly playing simultaneously.
One way to do that is to use Sega's Edge 16 adapter to connect a Sega Genesis videogame player to a telephone line, said Tom Abramson, Sega group director for promotions. Players could compete simultaneously and even talk to each other on the phone, he said.
And "Slime Time" isn't Nickelodeon's only venture into interactivity. The network is now testing an interactive TV show where kids get to decide what happens. If the test is successful, the show may appear in Nickelodeon's lineup late this year.
"Our quest is to continually find interesting ways of reaching our viewers directly," Ms. van der Lee said. "We really think that kids are going to be the consumers that are most easily adaptable to interactivity."