When Cartoon Network launched a new slate of programming aimed at preschoolers, a dedicated Web site accompanied the effort. In a field crowded with competitors like Disney Playhouse, Nick Jr., and Noggin, the team at Cartoon Network decided to take a different approach.
"It was clear that they were doing a good job, but what was missing was the sense of kids being kids," says Alice Cahn, CN's vice president of programming, who led the development of the new Tickle U. "We did a lot of research on the value of humor and optimism and focused on the content being fun, funny, and fearless -- just like preschoolers."
When Tickle U launched last August, it did so with seven original series for kids ages 3 to 5, along with a Web site, tickleu.com, tied directly to TV programming. The site features games and activities linked to each of the shows, but with a number of twists. Instead of simply having a character going around a maze or in a race, CN's new media team populated the site with irreverent, interactive content that might at first seem to defy logic -- at least parents' logic.
"We went to toy stores and looked at popular games and saw that kids like cause and effect --hitting something and seeing something that they made happen," says Christine Bielenski, associate creative director for new media at CN. Parents don't see the point to a lot of the games -- and that's the whole point."
For example, click on the game link for the "Peppa Pig" show and the "Swirlygig" game has a dozen images of Peppa. When kids click on them, the pigs snort and turn upside down, and the colors of their skirts change. Occasionally a clicked pig laughs. And that's it. There's no goal, no finish line -- just fun.
The simplicity, Cahn says, is tied to another objective: CN wanted to create an online experience for children that they could handle themselves. There are few words, big buttons, and a mouse-rollover voice that provides instructions.
"When I was at Sesame Street and we first started building the Web site, there was an assumption that it would be a shared parent/child experience," Cahn says. "And it's not that parents don't want to spend time with their children, but a lot of children can do it themselves and want to be independent."
From the outset, the world of Tickle U was envisioned as a dual experience of TV shows paired with a Web site. It was created, Cahn says, as a collaborative effort between the TV programming division and the new media department. The site is promoted frequently on-air, and it's thematically very similar.
"The goal was to have the screens be almost seamless," Cahn says. "What they see online is not dissimilar to what they see on TV, at least in terms of layout, color, and play patterns."
Sherri Glass, supervising producer for Tickle U online, says the new media department met early on with the show's creators and watched all the episodes.
"The goal was to keep the child's experience in mind," Glass says. "Kids become obsessed with one particular character or show, so we wanted to be able to have them go to that page and feel immersed in that world."
The online games and activities also had to make sense with what kids saw on TV. "The packaging of the show had to be reflected online, and we had to make sure the games and activities reflected the show."
Cahn now wonders whether the TV is directing kids to the site, or vice versa. "We used to assume TV was the driver, but frankly I'm not convinced that's the truth anymore."
Cahn adds, "I don't think linear-based TV storytelling is ever going to go away, but the idea of playing with those characters and being able to repeat things at your own pace is going to drive kids' media use in the years to come."
Having developed preschool programming for 20 years and with two children of her own -- a three- and a seven-year-old -- Cahn has observed a change in mentality in the past few years.
"There's an assumption on the part of us as a network, and the artists and writers, that we develop properties across platforms," she says. "That was not the case 10 years ago, when we thought of online as just a partner."
Cahn says new content and programming ideas don't necessarily have to start as TV shows anymore. "I think we're at the end of the time when TV is the only way to introduce things. When we look at new projects now, we might say, 'Let's start that online, or as a hand-held game.' Then we can morph it into linear storytelling for television."
The Tickle U Web site doesn't include advertising, other than promotions about when the shows run on TV. But Cahn calls the online/TV matchup a "balanced meal" that kids and parents have come to expect. And as online play increasingly becomes part of a typical day, Cahn says she's convinced Tickleu.com is driving traffic to the TV shows.
That's a coup for the network, which has until recently targeted older kids. Cahn sees the cross-platform pollination as a natural progression.
"TVs and computers are both part of children's lives," she says. "They're tools to help children learn about themselves and the world around them."
Kids, Cahn says, don't care which medium delivers programming. "The tools become agnostic," she says. "What is important is how you provide content that's developmentally appropriate that maximizes what those tools can do."
The Tickle U site offers games and activities designed to enrich young minds. There's a purple bar at the bottom of each Web page that lets parents know what cognitive skills each activity is designed to enhance -- recall, visual acuity, or fine motor skills.
But, Glass says, "The focus is on unstructured play. We wanted kids to feel like they can do whatever they want to do, with no restrictions."
The only hall monitor is a built-in timer parents can set to let kids know when to stop. It's a feature that's especially handy, Cahn says, for cases in which two or more kids are sharing the same computer. She hopes that as computers continue to drop in price, more children will have access to them.
"We need more of them," she says, adding that sharing a PC with your kids can be problematic. "You don't want jelly in your keyboard."