Grabbing 'Em with Games

Kids like to play. So it shouldn't come as a surprise that kids' television networks will lean heavily on games in the coming months as they seek to build an audience online. Games are ideal engagement tools - you have to play them so they naturally keep visitors on a Web site longer.

With ad dollars migrating online - an exodus that will probably be felt most acutely for the networks that cater to trend-setting young viewers - kids networks, such as Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network, are shoring up the investments they have already made in Web sites and Web video by adding more games to the mix.

"What video programming is to the TV, gaming is to the Web," said Steve Youngwood, executive vice president of digital media at Nickelodeon/MTVN Kids and Family Group.

This summer Nickelodeon said it was spending $100 million to develop additional casual online games. In the next two years, Nickelodeon will launch subscription gaming services as well as a casual gaming site for teenage girls. Nickelodeon will also introduce massive multiplayer gaming on, its virtual world online destination for kids.

Gaming is an important category because more than 86 percent of kids 8 to 14 participate in online gaming. What's more, the number of visitors to online gaming sites has risen 17 percent in the last year to nearly 217 million, according to comScore.

Cartoon Network plans to play too. In September, the network launched "Master Control," as both a standalone Web site and a destination within Kids can join teams online and compete to win enough votes to determine the show Cartoon Network will run on-air at 5:30 p.m. each day. Later in the fall, Cartoon Network plans to launch "Mini Match," a new section of its Web site that will focus on two-player games, where kids play games online via an avatar.

The goal for Cartoon Network is to use games to grow its audience, which hovered around 6 million unique viewers per month in May, June and July. That's far behind competitors Disney and Nickelodeon, whose audience figures ranged from 17 million to 20 million per month during those three months, according to figures from Nielsen//NetRatings.

"Reach is our No. 1 goal internally; building audience is our No. 1 goal," says Paul Condolora, senior vice president and general manger for Cartoon Network New Media.

Gaming plays to Cartoon Network's online strength. The site logged about 2 billion game plays last year and is on track to hit 2.3 billion or 2.4 billion game plays this year. The network counts 17 million registered players for its games and was nominated for an Emmy in 2004 for an online game tied to the show "Kids Next Door."

Disney also said it's building out more games online that create extended storylines for its shows in order to increase user engagement and time spent online. "Games can help drive traffic numbers and repeat visitations to [a]site," says Michael Hayes, senior vice president and managing director for the interactive group in North America at media buying agency Initiative.

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