Scooby Doo, Where Are You?: Gaming Is The New TV

Two oddly related bits of kids’ media news crossed my transom this week, one about the demise of a TV ritual and the other about the rise of kids' gaming.

First up, Yahoo TV columnist Mike Krumboltz noted that this past Saturday marked a strange milestone in television history. It was the first Saturday in 50 years that had no morning cartoon shows on network broadcasts.

It's not as if there are no cartoons to be found. Cable TV networks with 24/7 animated fare have helped suck some of the air out of that special slot of kid TV time. And all of the major cartoon nets discovered a while ago that these kids are consuming much of their content on devices. For them the tablet is the new TV.

This is the end of a fond ritual for many of us, however. I was among the TV-aholic kids who couldn’t wait for the September launches of new Saturday morning toons. I was good for a solid five hour black of watching during the age of "The Archies," early Scooby Doo, and barely animated series involving the Beatles and Jackson 5. The only live action we tolerated back in the day was the truly bizarre "Lancelot Link Secret Chimp."



But cartoons are not the only surreal, imaginative and malleable world available to the current generation. Gaming seems to occupy the kind of hallowed place the cartoon once occupied in children’s lives. According to new research from Interpret’s GameByte Kids that surveyed 10 countries, kids aged 6 to 12 spend 12.1 hours a week gaming. Devices have been a key driver of the ever-expanding mindshare gaming has with kids. Gaming on tablets and smartphones alone is responsible for 3.2 hours a week of play.

Tablets especially have become the new toy of choice. According to a YouthBeat survey, 68% of households with kids 6-13 have a tablet in the house, and about a third of those households have kids who have their own tablet device. A little less than a third of the demo already has their own phone, and most of those are smartphones.

In fact, perhaps nothing speaks to this transition of kid affection and loyalty than the latest survey of brand love for the 6-12 segment. Consulting firm Smarty Pants found that Apple’s iPad is the top brand among kids – overwhelming media providers Disney, Nickelodeon, YouTube, Netflix, Toys ‘R’ Us and even McDonald's. The closest brand to iPad in kids’ mind were Hershey’s, Oreo and M&Ms. 

If tablets are the new TV for this demo, then almost all kids are now app-savvy, with 83% saying they use or have  downloaded apps. And 71% of parents say they download apps for their kids. And those downloads are going across a number of different devices: 38% to tablets, 34% to phones, 25% to iPods and 18% to eReaders.

One has to wonder if the new age of smart toys and wonderfully imaginative, often animated, apps is satisfying in children the aesthetics once addressed by cartoons. In addition to malleable, visually saturated environments, gaming adds an appeal to children’s need for a sense of mastery, prowess, and impact on the world, even if imagined. Some of these worlds are so compelling they themselves become passive media. Gameplay video on YouTube and the now-famous Twitch digital network of game streams attest to gaming as a new narrative form for kids.

But marketing into this space had proven historically difficult. Games are not cartoons. They resist interruptive ad formats, and most attempts at brand integration feel inauthentic. Kids, who are all about getting free stuff, have a higher bar of tolerance for advertiser clutter if it gets them free play. Still, it's an open question how much advertiser messages really register when a gamer is focused on the contest. Most seasoned marketers in the space I have spoken with over the years advise that sponsors try to find ways to enhance and enable the thing gamers really love -- gaming -- rather than trying to find more artful ways of interrupting it.

As a marketing medium, gaming continues to thwart easy application of old ad habits. It is a different way of experiencing media that demands more imaginative formats and models for marketers. But it is without a doubt a nut it will be necessary to crack. 

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