ONLINE SERVICES OFFER COMMUNITY TO YOUNG HACKERS

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Instead of plopping down in front of the tube for an animated afternoon with the Ninja Turtles or the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, some kids are signing on to computers so they can create original endings of Babysitter's Club installments, lead explorers to ancient Mayan ruins or discuss what World War II was like with older folks.

Welcome to life online, a place kids-as well as the commercial services and their advertisers-are becoming more friendly with each day.

Prodigy Services, America Online and CompuServe are all dabbling in the kids' market, offering everything from online kids' magazines and forums hosted by famous guest speakers such as "Home Improvement's" Jonathon Taylor Thomas to whizzy computer games and online adventures.

Prodigy and America Online each have created special areas where young audiences can immediately view their kids menu-Just for Kids and Kids Only, respectively.

Regardless of the innovation, the key to success is the program's ability to entice the kids back.

"Kids get bored and day after day they don't want to go back to the same thing," says Peter Grunwald, a West Coast consultant. "Most programs sound good and appear glitzy, but the reality is kids will get sick of it.... Ultimately, online services aren't about delivery of linear content, but about community and where kids can go to collaborate with other kids and get real interactivity."

With that in mind, two families of online services seem to have emerged-one is instructional in orientation and the other is a consumer service of magazines, games and other types of "infotainment."

The instructional service is usually a closed network offered in a school. Such services include the National Geographic Kids Network or the AT&T Learning Network, which require a fair amount of facilitating and moderating by the network.

The National Geographic Kids Network has reached more than 39,000 classrooms in 41 countries, enabling students from around the world to collaborate with each other on scientific experiments (see related story on Page S-8).

Schools pay around $500 for software, manuals, test kits and communications charges to link the network; however, the service is considering jumping on the Internet, which could significantly decrease costs and increase usage.

The consumer services don't allow as much interactivity and aren't as user-driven; therefore, the content ages quickly, deterring kids from returning to the site.

New consumer programs are being developed by Prodigy, traditionally stronger among the established services in providing kids programming.

Prodigy recently launched its much-awaited Homework Helper, a resource center constructed with search engines created especially for kids. It boasts more than 700 resources online, from which kids can download articles and photographs. The service-targeted to 8-to-18-year-olds-will carry an additional monthly subscription of $9.95 plus $2.95 per hour, or a flat hourly rate of $6 per hour.

Prodigy invites kids to use the service through online promotions, billing inserts and direct mail efforts developed in-house.

Prodigy also hosts various interactive Learning Adventures. Users, for example, can direct a team of real bicyclists as they explore Central America in search of understanding the collapse of the ancient Mayan civilization.

Using the jumpword "Mayaquest," Prodigy subscribers can send e-mail to the team, read current updates of the expedition as well as vote on the direction the team will next take.

Although advertising to kids is limited to online promotions and PR efforts, "Mayaquest" is sponsored by eight companies including Prodigy, Target and 3M Foundation. In addition, a variety of marketers are supplying equipment to the expedition team including Huffy for bikes, clothing retailer Patagonia, Eastman Kodak and Power Bar.

Along with creating topical bulletin boards and community-building "chat rooms," the services are also competing to snatch up high-profile content providers whose names and products can attract users.

For example, Nickelodeon currently has two interactive features called The Big Help and UtoU on America Online and Prodigy. It plans to launch Nick Online this summer. It remains to be seen which service provider will reap big benefits from winning a contract with the 6-to-14-year-old targeted Nick Online.

Prodigy hosts one of the only pre-literate programs for kids between 3 and 6, and also one of the biggest names in kids' programming-Sesame Street. With its graphic interface, playful characters and original copy, Sesame Street attracts a large number of users-about 55,000 log-ons per month.

"We eliminated the ad space and made our own command bar that's very Sesame Streetish.... Because our users can't read, we had to create something they could actually work," says Gina Covington, marketing manager-interactive technologies at Children's Television Workshop.

While Prodigy also boasts online versions of Sports Illustrated for Kids and new installments of the popular Babysitter's Club book series, America Online has Time Magazine for Kids, Disney Adventures and Scholastic KidsWorld, a part of Scholastic Online.

As this new interactive medium unfolds, service providers are trying to understand the best way to develop products that facilitate communication among groups of children.

"It's pretty common these days for online content providers to treat material like a broadcast paradigm, and it's crucial not to do that, especially for the kids' market," says David Vogler, executive producer of Nick Online and Nick at Nite Online.

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