Entertainment companies have started looking at the Internet as a new medium to program, rather than a sort of online marketing effort that mainly serves to bolster interest in TV or movie fare. The foremost kids entertainment providers, such as Disney, Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network, insist that Internet programming is a separate, but complementary, area that they see as an enormous business opportunity.

Kids are certainly going online for information on the latest movies and TV shows, but they’re also playing games, entering contests, shopping, chatting and e-mailing — or in the case of Disney Blast, D-mailing.

“There’s an effect that online will have on television, and that television will have on online. It’s important to be playing in both arenas,” says Scott Webb, executive VP of Nickelodeon Mediaworks. “We believe the Internet is a business, and we manage it as such. It’s not just a self-liquidating marketing tool.”

The recent Nickelodeon Kids Choice Awards is an example of what the Web does best right now, and how it’s helping television pro-grammers deliver content in new cyber-ways. “The television broadcast was good for watching the Kids Choice Awards,” Webb explains. “Online was a superior way to do voting, and the Nickelodeon magazine was a great way to learn about the nominees. It’s about taking advantage of the strengths of each medium to strengthen the property overall.”

High ratings

When kids surf the web, they’re most likely to start with the names they recognize, and for the most part, that means the providers of their favorite TV shows and movies. According to Web site ratings service Media Metrix, Disney Online is the top site for news and entertainment for kids age 2 to 11. Nickelodeon also rates high in most rankings, although the still-young ratings services are often questioned. Except for a few sites from software companies such as Humongous, Headbone and Purple Moon, and Internet games sites for dedicated followers of specific games, entertainment companies are leading the way in providing original entertainment on the web.

“It’s a question of programming,” says Cartoon Network exec VP Rob Sorcher. “You have to get it from somewhere.” Besides having the properties available, networks can promote Web sites on their shows, providing free advertising. Other entertainment sites named as popular with kids include Discovery Online, PBS Online, Fox Kids and Warner Bros. Kids Online.

The number of kids going online is growing extremely fast. While Internet surveys are outdated almost as soon as they appear, technology research provider Find/SVP and Grunwald Associates found 9.8 million U.S. children using the Internet in mid-1997, or 14% of all American children. The same study found that 37% of parents surveyed would prefer their children use the Internet for entertainment instead of television. With most schools wired for the Internet, companies such as Nickelodeon, Headbone and Scholastic are doing extensive outreach programs to educators.

Not surprisingly, the leader in kids online is Disney. The Mouse presence includes an umbrella Web site covering the entire company, with areas dedicated to theme parks, feature films, shopping, family topics, television and more, as well as Disney Blast, a subscription fee site launched in 1997.

Richard Wolpert, exec VP of Disney Online, sees the Internet as an important separate new medium. “We have asked ourselves, is the Internet a device to market your existing brands and properties, or is it a new medium that’s a business in and of itself? We think you’re missing the big opportunity if you think of it as only a way to support your other brands.”

The subscription service Disney Blast, which costs an additional $5.95 per month or $39.95 per year, is a controversial business model for the Internet. Most sites are supported by advertising or from the company’s internal promotional budget.

“The Blast pay service has a lot more content. It has a lot of real-time event chats, auditorium chats and open chats. We’ve spent a lot of time and money on security,” Wolpert says, noting that a live person monitors each chat area constantly, a security precaution that adds to the cost of providing the service.

Blast is also the home of D-mail, a “high-end graphic e-mail” which enables subscribers to send messages and graphics to anybody’s e-mail address. An extensive selection of Disney-themed videogames and a magazine are included in the subscription selection.

Disney Blast is heavily marketed through inserts in videos, direct mail, online ads on other sites and of course on Disney.com, where the Blast for Kids area serves as a free intro to the Disney Blast service. While Disney doesn’t release subscription figures, Wolpert says that in December of 1997, the service was signing up 500 new subscribers a day, and the rate has climbed since then.

Rising audience

Rob McCue, senior producer for Yahooligans, the kids area of popular search engine Yahoo, says the Internet is “a two way street; it’s like nothing else … kids can access changing content, as well as communicate with each other. There’s a rising amount of time spent on it.” Far from being worried about audience erosion, “TV stations should be excited about this,” McCue says.

Chatting is a favorite activity for teenagers on the Web. The elementary school crowd likes searching for favorite characters or looking for contests and games. The most popular areas on Yahooligans, says McCue, are games, movies, TV shows, entertainment, and homework helping. At present, he thinks, preschoolers are better served by CD-ROM games.

However, sites directed to preschoolers continue to multiply, although the smallest tots are presumably logging on with help from parents and older siblings. Nickelodeon recently launched a separate Nick Jr. site with info on preschool programming such as “Blue’s Clues” as well as games and puzzles. NickJr.com contains areas for both parents and kids. A Blast Jr. area is included on Disney Blast, and PBS-related sites for “Barney,” “Sesame Street,” “Arthur” and “Thomas the Tank Engine” are flourishing.

Unlike Disney, which is trying both free and subscription approaches, Nickelodeon firmly believes in trying to reach the largest number of kids possible. “It’s a medium that demands choosing who you want to serve. We do not feel the need to create a barrier to Nick by asking people to pay for it — if you introduce a parent into the process, then you need to market to parents. We want our primary relationship to be with kids,” Webb says.

Toons meet Web

Turner-owned Cartoon Network, which recently hit 50 million homes on TV, is not about to be left out of the web equation. While the toon net has hosted a bare bones site on AOL for some time, a much more comprehensive World Wide Web site is in the works for launch later this year.

“We’re thinking about it as an integrated strategy,” Cartoon Network executive VP Rob Sorcher says. “Audience participation will be a big part of what we do. The question is, how do you take information delivery and combine it with entertainment?” Like Webb, Sorcher says the site is a separate entertainment medium, not just a promotional tool, and as such, should contain considerable amounts of original content.

The Internet’s potential is still far from fully exploited, thinks Sorcher, “Everyone can feel it in their gut,” he says. “It might not be there right now. … We’re going for something much broader: What is the translation of our network in the Internet medium?”

How to use the Internet to its fullest potential — not just as an animated TV Guide or a magazine with more feedback — is a question with which programming providers will increasingly grapple in the future.