When it comes to convergence CartoonNetwork.com is pushing the envelope and reaping the rewards. Brett Rogers reveals the Website's winning philosophy and hopes of becoming extinct in the near future!
"The Internet is the enemy."
"Spin off an online division and let them try to recapture some of the audience the Internet siphons away."
That was what most television networks were thinking as they worked furiously to capture a piece of the online pie. At the same time, start-up online entertainment companies sprouted up all over the Internet, flush with funding, new content and confidence in their abilities to compete on the Web.
As the dust settles on the initial Internet rush, it seems that both philosophies fell short. Television hasn't died and developing an identity online from the ground up is still expensive enough to bankrupt even the most innovative Websites.
Cartoon Network chose a different path for its online presence. By working to exploit the strengths of both television and the Internet, CartoonNetwork.com has thrived, as much of the online animation and entertainment industry has gone back to the drawing board.
"What others have tried to do is put some animation online or try to have a game site... but they can't begin with the leverage of having a brand behind them. At the same time, they had to build the experience and build the brand. We had the brand built, so it was all about growing the experience and then letting people know about it through the network," explains Jim Samples, general manager of Cartoon Network Online.
"One of the things Cartoon Network has done better than anyone is to manage the site as a part of the overall brand. Some of our competitors expected to create a separate entertainment company and spin it off around their Website. We never expected to do that. CartoonNetwork.com is a part of Cartoon Network. Almost every week there's a new tie-in between on-air and online. That's typical of our philosophy overall."
Revitalizing the Classics
Even with a robust brand and ample on-air support, building a Website that makes full use of the network's colossal library of animation is no small task. As vice president of Cartoon Network Online and creative director of CartoonNetwork.com, Sam Register is responsible for making sure cultural icons like Scooby-Doo look at home on the Web.
"We have a different job than other entertainment Websites in that we launched with a library. We had to take content that was new, like The Powerpuff Girls and Dexter, very old, like Bugs and Tom and Jerry, and everything in the middle, like The Jetsons and The Flintstones, from four different libraries and use the Internet to pump life into these characters," Register says.
"Web Premiere Toons," CartoonNetwork.com's original animation component, is one way Register has tried to knock the dust off the network's classic cartoon characters. In the past, "Web Premiere Toons" have focused on Cartoon Network's newer, original characters. This year, 40 new shorts will be introduced with a focus on reinventing classic characters from the network's library.
"You put a Yogi Bear cartoon from the Sixties next to a Powerpuff Girls cartoon and it is night and day. Those Yogi cartoons are great, they're beautiful, but they fall flat on a lot of the audiences today," says Register.
A roster of studios including Wild Brain and Funny Garbage will animate this year's "Web Premiere Toons," along with John K, who has signed on to produce six shorts of his own featuring the Jetsons, Yogi Bear and Fred and Barney from The Flintstones. "We end up taking a character that we already have the rights to and finding a new place for it," Register says. "We went with a film festival metaphor for doing animation online. We try doing lots of different things that all look different from each other in nice, quick, short, little blasts. That's something we can do much cheaper online."
While one of the advantages of producing new animated content on the Web rather than television is the relatively low cost, Register insists that the quality of animation will remain high. "I think the quality of animation online on the whole needs to grow up. I just wish everything didn't look like it was done in Flash. I'm glad some of the entertainment-only sites went away because they weren't paying anything for it and it looked like it."
"I have a higher standard. The TV people at Cartoon Network are animation purists. I think that Cartoon Network does some of the best animation on television and I have to do the same thing online... I couldn't show my face at Cartoon Network if I did anything less."
Unfortunately, producing appealing animation online means dealing with a daunting array of technology limitations and high user expectations. Visitors to CartoonNetwork.com and other online entertainment sites have grown accustomed to seeing their favorite characters as they appear on television. They expect the animation to have a certain look and feel that in many situations is not possible.
"In all our minds when we watch animation or any entertainment online we think that it should look like TV or a movie. So, one of the biggest challenges is trying to deprogram what people think entertainment online should be. It doesn't have to be exactly like television," explains Register.
Innovation Through Immersion
Integrating online content with Cartoon Network's on-air programming is an approach that pervades everything CartoonNetwork.com does. When the online world is paired with television to behave like a single entertainment source, both sides can win. Through "Total Immersion Cartoon" events, the network and CartoonNetwork.com collaborate to allow interaction between visitors to the Website and the programming on television.
The week of September 18, 2000 marked the debut of this concept with "Toonami: The Intruder." Special episodes aired in which Tom, animated host of the network's Toonami block of cartoons, battled to save his spaceship from an alien threat. Intertwined with each episode were messages urging viewers to visit Toonami.com, where Nintendo-sponsored enhanced content, games and special contents awaited.
The ambitious stunt, which risked driving viewers away from the television to their computers in the middle of a popular block of programming, proved successful. Online traffic soared 72 percent from the previous week and on-air ratings jumped 50 percent for viewers ages 9-14. "It worked beautifully," recalls Jim Samples. "Nintendo was very happy with it, we were very happy with it. It was the highest trafficked week of the year."
The "Total Immersion"experiment in enhanced television will reappear four times this year, hoping to capture the same success enjoyed by "Toonami: Intruder." Early indications show that "The Powerpuff Popularity Contest," which aired March 19-15, didn't disappoint. The Milk-sponsored event, in which viewers were given the opportunity to vote for their favorite girl by phone or online, featured Powerpuff Girls episodes on the network with advertisements driving viewers to CartoonNetwork.com, where a new pillow fight Powerpuff game awaited, along with special contest-related material.
Though Bubbles won the popularity contest, the real winner was network-online integration. CartoonNetwork.com experienced record traffic numbers and the network showed triple-digit ratings increases in most demographics, as visitors bounced between their televisions and computers. "['The Total Immersion' events] are the most important integrated campaigns we do," Samples says. "Everything that we do online is built in such a way that it is intimately related with what's going on the air."
That, it seems, is something advertisers are looking for.
"As the media alternatives become increasingly fragmented it makes sense to create campaigns that reach across all of those media. That's what we're trying to do here... a virtuous cycle of entertainment experience and advertising appropriately intertwined with that," says Samples.
"[Advertisers] don't want banners, in most cases," says Sam Register. "I spend a lot of time figuring out how we can do partnerships with advertisers that make them happy and make us happy."
It is important to draw advertisers, especially in the current online marketing environment, but keeping the entertainment experience strong takes creative solutions. Using online content to enhance television programming is largely uncharted territory, but results from "Total Immersion" events indicate it's here to stay.
The three remaining "Total Immersion Cartoon" events are "The Big Pick II,"which will allow viewers to interact with the television by choosing a new Cartoon Cartoon series for the fall of 2002 from 11 new shorts; "Toonami: Lockdown," featuring an online multi-player game where viewers can team up, use codes retrieved from the television and help save Tom; and "Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?," highlighted by on-air clues that viewers can use to unlock secret Scooby-Doo related content online, such as games, icons and sounds. Each event will serve as a laboratory for new methods of letting viewers to use their computers to take part in the action on-air.
"There are a lot of different ways to do the enhancements. It's an ongoing process. The ones that do well we continue using. The ones that didn't do well, we either revise them or scrap them," Register says.
Although CartoonNetwork.com can make wider use of Cartoon Network's gargantuan library of characters than the television network, all the games, character pages, "Web Premiere Toons" and other content online can't make use of it all. So how do you effectively draw on all the characters in the combined libraries of four prolific animation studios? Turn them into online trading cards.
"Kids love to collect and love to trade," Samples observes. "Those are just basic play habits that have been around forever. This is a way to allow kids to have that sort of play online. Pokémon is a great example of how powerful that is."
Last October, CartoonNetwork.com launched "Cartoon Orbit," a community for kids to collect and trade cToons, the site's online trading cards. Orbit members can display their cToon collections in cZones, or individual sites they create and customize.
Over 650,000 users have joined Orbit since its launch, with an average of 20,000 more joining each week. Meshing nicely with its Web-television convergence campaign, codes appear every Friday night on Cartoon Network during Cartoon Cartoon Fridays that viewers can use to retrieve a limited edition cToon online. "The Powerpuff Popularity Contest" also featured secret codes viewers redeemed online for cToons of Buttercup, Blossom and Bubbles.
Two-way interaction already exists between users and CartoonNetwork.com, but Cartoon Orbit introduces a new aspect of interaction between users. Because the experience is menu-driven, Orbit is safe, easy to use and expandable internationally across language barriers and other technology platforms, strategies that are still in development.
"There are key connection points between online and on-air. The network has a hard time using all the characters in its library because it's in a linear environment. We can use the whole library," Register explains.
The Cartoon Orbit has provided an appealing outlet for marketers, as well. The new Kellogg's Powerpuff Girls Cereal contains a secret code that sends kids to EetAndErn.com, a heavily promoted Kellogg's Website where kids earn points toward prizes, view additional Powerpuff Girls content and retrieve limited edition cToons. With the simultaneous appearance of Kellogg's and Milk as online and on-air Cartoon Network sponsors, kids could theoretically eat an all-Powerpuff Girls breakfast. Samples admits, however, that the meal marketing monopoly is just a happy coincidence
Keeping the Big Kids Happy
CartoonNetwork.com's user breakdown indicates that about one-third of the audience is adults, one-third is teens and one-third is under 11, demographics that skew a bit older than the on-air network. According to Samples, Toonami, a block of mostly action-adventure anime, tends to attract the most teens and young 20s males. In an effort to appeal to that audience and demonstrate the full potential of interactive entertainment, CartoonNetwork.com introduced "Toonami Reactor" in late March 2001.
"Reactor" is a 12-week exhibition of enhanced Toonami programming online consisting of streaming Dragonball Z and Star Blazers episodes with synched commentary, games, content and trivia. The innovative split-screen format works well to allow viewers to move seamlessly between episodes and interactive content. The experience is best with a broadband connection, but a 56K modem is adequate to view most features and watch medium-quality streaming video without a problem. As larger monitors and higher connection speeds become more prevalent, it's easy to see why CartoonNetwork.com thinks it will be at the forefront of television and online mixed media. Fans of the Dragonball Z introductory segment now absent from Toonami will be happy to find that it's present on "Toonami Reactor."
The fan-friendly features are by design, according to Samples. "In developing [Reactor] we've had active, ongoing conversations with the anime clubs at universities and with the bulletin boards and fan clubs to develop what [the content] should look like. It's been a lot of fun to do it this way."
Reactor is scheduled to feature 40 episodes of Dragonball Z's Frieza Saga, 26 episodes of Star Blazers, two new Dragonball Z games and two new Toonami-specific games.
Predicting the Future
All the innovation at CartoonNetwork.com isn't just for the sake of forwarding the cause of online animation and entertainment, of course. Growth and profitability are the end goals. "We are expected to generate sufficient revenue to more than cover the expenses that we're incurring in building out the site," Samples points out. "It is an investment in a business, but the business is being managed as a part of the overall Cartoon Network business. I think that is one of our key advantages."
Page views, unique visitors and sticky content are the traditional measuring sticks for online entertainment sites, but recent events in the industry have cast doubt on this practice.
Register observes, "Visitors and page views don't seem to equal dollars like everyone thought they would. [...] None of this equals dollars. It's all great, it's all experimental, it's all very cool, but targeting people and audiences and all that, it doesn't matter. We've all found out that none of this equals dollars today. It may equal dollars later on, so we need to just keep plugging away and figuring out what seems to work and what doesn't and hopefully all entertainment Websites will become profitable someday. I'm in the same fix as everyone else."
The rewards of the future are where CartoonNetwork.com has set its sights. While today it strives to maintain the freshest content of the moment, behind the scenes the site is looking forward. If all goes as planned, CartoonNetwork.com will render itself obsolete.
Global growth is one piece to the puzzle. Manifestations of CartoonNetwork.com are already available in 13 sites internationally in numerous languages. As the network and technology expand worldwide, the range of Cartoon Network Online will grow in tandem.
New technology should play into CartoonNetwork.com's plans as the television and online worlds converge into a single vehicle. Development on products for the next wave of interactive animation for products like Replay and Tevo has already commenced, with an eye toward enhanced TV boxes and concurrent Web-television devices.
"Down the road, between five and ten years, I think there is no Cartoon Network Online," muses Samples. "I hope we get to a situation were you sit down on your couch, you flip on your flat screen TV that's hanging on the wall in front of you, you flip to the Cartoon Network channel and you have an option of watching the linear network, a very sit-back experience, or you take your remote and flip over to the games section, or chat with your friends using AOL Instant Messenger while on the Cartoon Network Channel talking about your favorite Dragonball Z episodes."
With the backing of powerhouse AOL Time Warner, that scenario has become more plausible. As Cartoon Network continues to develop its online products under a unified network-wide banner, it stands as an example of how to use online and on-air units effectively in harmony, something that shouldn't go unnoticed by its new parent company.
Brett Rogers is a freelance writer and law student based in Baltimore.