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NICKELODEON PLANS NEW INTERACTIVE NET

Nickelodeon is prepping what company insiders are touting as the first interactive learning channel. Dubbed the Big Orange, it has the greenlight from top brass at corporate parent Viacom, say company insiders.

Engineered by Nickelodeon prexy and MTV Networks vice chairman Geraldine Laybourne, the blueprint calls for the Big Orange to work in consort with other Viacom units, in particular publishing giant Simon & Schuster, which has made the burgeoning educational electronic publishing biz a top priority. Viacom Interactive also will play a key role in developing the Big Orange, with plans to dovetail Big Orange programming with CD-ROM and various online computer networks.

Target date for the launch of the new educational interactive web is the third quarter of 1996. Laybourne and MTV Networks exec veep Mark Rosenthal are expected to powwow this week with their sales staff at the National Cable Television Assn. convention in Dallas to fine-tune plans for the Big Orange rollout. In addition, Laybourne and company will use the NCTA to lobby cable operators to support the project. Several issues still need to be hammered out, including advertising on the channel, which may take the form of corporate sponsorship as opposed to the traditional commercial approach.

While Nickelodeon has myriad resources to draw on, including its own formidable clout and that of sister network MTV, the Big Orange still faces an uphill battle. Cable system operators are inundated with such established networks as E! Entertainment Television, Court TV and Comedy Central, which are fighting to broaden their reach. Lack of channel capacity has been a factor in putting other channels on hold, including Nickelodeon’s plans to transform Nick at Nite into a free-standing 24-hour channel.

Meanwhile, Tele-Communications Inc. chairman John Malone, who controls 25% of cable households, will no doubt be a hard sell. Malone’s programming subsidiary Liberty Media holds big stakes in such networks as the Discovery Channel and the Learning Channel that have interactive plans of their own.

Moreover, industry sources say the Children’s Television Workshop, which has retained investment bank Allen & Co. to find strategic partners for a cable network, has TCI and the No. 2 cable systems operator Time Warner on its list of potential mates.

But Nickelodeon insiders argue that they will have the edge on any competition because of a stellar track record with cable operators, coupled with the uniqueness of the Big Orange.

A Nickelodeon spokeswoman declined comment.

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