Friday, July 17, 2009

More, and Earlier, TV on the Internets: Kideos.com

The Web continues to go down—in age, that is. Even as the major media conglomerates hustle to maximize their share of the Web by leveraging their libraries of children’s offerings, smaller companies edge in on the kid angle.

The efficient, multi-media-ed folks at the PR company BusinessWire (A Berkshire-Hathaway Company) now send word that the newest and bestest net stuff for kids is at Kideos.com, a product brought to you by the aptly named Earlier Media. As the moniker implies, these folks target the youngest possible video-watching web users, and expect to grab their share of kiddy gold.

A visit to Kideos.com reveals a wide array of clips lovingly uploaded to YouTube by some film company, PR wage slave, or obsessed fan that the Kideos staff has painstakingly cataloged and sorted by age and subject matter. Content categories break down into both topics (“Educational,” “Fairy Tales”) and characters (“Barney,” “Sesame Street”). Essentially, the good folks at Kideos have taken the drudgery out of searching YouTube.

[Ed Note: Could it be that in some bright future a talented young entrepreneur will develop a similar method for guiding surfers through the Internet more generally? Imagine the Web’s offerings sorted into useful categories. Oh! if only that day would come; we would all shout a collective, “Yahoo!”]

Judging by its press release, Kideos adds value by providing safety. Its first three sentences emphasize that kids will “safely watch,” in a “safe environment,” content from “trustworthy destinations.” Safety is the company’s watchword. Earlier Media’s own site commences with the assurance, “Earlier Media is dedicated to providing safe and trustworthy web properties for children.”

Company legend has it that safety concerns prompted the business from the start. Kideos explains how the brainstorm came from parents who entertained their hospitalized daughter by watching Elmo videos. Apparently, they were not watching the thousands of licensed Sesame Street videos, but searching YouTube. The story runs that most things went well but “every once in a while, we would click on a video that was highly inappropriate.”

Indeed, few would sit their toddlers down to watch clips such as “Exploding Elmo Doll” or the many “Elmo Kills Barney” iterations (sample some here, here, here, and here; cringeworthy on many levels). At the same time, it seems just as likely that the Earlier Media team realized that some parents might find benefit from someone doing the searching for them.

Thus, the a-ha moment—what if there were a web site that would sort YouTube clips so that parents would not have to do it themselves? Et Voila!

The benefit seems to be categorization, but the site sells safety. It promises that a (still-anonymous) “Video Advisory Council” of “parents and educators” monitor the selected videos for content and age appropriateness. Lip service gets paid to “factoring in developmental criteria and recommendations from leading experts nationwide,” although one wonders what that means (or even who those experts could be).

There is no denying that the involvement of real parents and educators. At the moment Earlier Media consists of a husband-and-wife team (presumably the ones from the hospital), Keith Richman and Michelle Richman, as Chairman and Educational advisor. They are both parents, and Michelle Richman is a “former teacher and current educational consultant.” Even so, it would not be shocking to discover that, at least for now, Kideos’s Council comprises two members whose names rhyme with "Meeth" and "Kichelle."

The videos may be safe, but one should not assume a child can necessarily visit the site without parental supervision. The press release fudges the facts (trimming them with the old saw “It’s actually educational” routine) by claiming, “Within a short period of time, kids are able to select videos to play without any help from adults, giving them a sense of confidence and a way to interact with computers just like grown-ups.”

Well, that may be true if “just like grown-ups” the kids can read and, unlike many grown-ups, have the skill to sort through a screenful of slag to mine the gold. Sure, the folks at Kideos categorize the clips. They do not, however, take much time to give fit them together in any logical fashion. Just a moment ago my click on the “Disney Movies” section yielded—in order—the third of ten Lion King clips; the Flo Rida-infused video hype for G-Force (pure advertising; the movie has not yet been released to theaters); then the second and first Lion King clips; and then one from the middle of Cars. If the order and arrangement confuse you, imagine how a pre-literate viewer might feel. Then again, maybe the best experts will fess up that kids don’t really need continuity.

All the promotion of safety begs a question of whether the folks at Sesame Workshop, Disney, and the other big media types will feel particularly safe with Kideos’s interpretation of copyright law? Adweek reports that “the company would make an effort to respect all copyright laws.” At this writing, Kideo may be jumping over the fine line between fair use and fair game. Can experts able discern whether a clip meets the needs of a two-year-old but not a three-year-old still unable to figure out whether those clips are fully halal?

Undoubtedly it’s less a matter of inability to judge and more a calculation that it’s someone else’s problem. After all, Kideos didn’t post the stuff; they just point out where to find it. There seem to be few problems a little cease-and-desist letter won’t solve.

Should such missives be sent, the person opening them presumably will be Duke Econ/UCLA MBA grad Josh Solt, the Chief Operating Officer who provided most of the PR blurbs and seems to be the go-to guy for day-to-day operation. For their part, the Richmans have good reason to be busy with other matters. They are parents; more to the point, Mr. Richman’s has an Internet empire to run. And that empire is sure to give Mr. Solt some crack legal expertise, because the folks behind Earlier Media have a lot of experience in dealing with YouTube copyright issues.

Kideos did not merely launch from a parent’s brainstorm to provide a public service. Keith Richman has built a small fortune on web sites that cater overwhelmingly to the kind of content Kideos promises to avoid. His day job consists of trudging to an office labeled “CEO, Break Media.”

The company’s flagship site, Break.com is the joy of cubicle jockeys and scourge of bosses worldwide. The site arguably does better than anyone at attracting the coveted demographic of men aged 18 to 34. Founded in 1998, its primary service has been to sort and categorize video clips, flash games, and other content appealing to its audience of grown-up boys. (The site launched as big-boys.com; the name change not only came in the wake of a lost arbitration case with a domain-name squatter, it also moved away from the mild hint of gay porn and toward recognition that much of its traffic comes from desk jockeys taking breaks at work.)

Break compiles material from other sources, but has also done extremely well at encouraging user-generated content. In 2006 Mr. Richman told socalTECH.com that Break had paid $300,000 to users providing the site’s content. Kids send in the videos, Break.com posts them, and Richman’s company takes over ownership. Break Media and its mysterious parent company, Delaware-based TMFT Enterprises, LLC, have worked assiduously to guard that ownership—and make sure their own stuff does not show up on YouTube. A small number of voices warn users against providing that content; a few YouTubers have resisted (note the comments attached to this clip.)

Richman bought out Break from its founder, and has gone on to develop a suite of web sites dedicated to reaching the young adult male including NASCAR-themed AllLeftTurns.com, GQ-esque MadeMan.com, and the self-explanatory Chickipedia.com. Most of the sites include content that Richman surely would shield his child against. Break.com hosts a soft-core category, once called Not Safe For Work (NSFW), now labeled “Spicy Videos.” Other Break Media sites have content registering varying levels on the Scoville scale. In other words, Richman knows intimately what threats the Internet holds for young eyes.

Richman also knows the business of the Internets. He worked in Silicon Valley in the exciting boom days. He, or someone he hired, also knows how to gobbledegook a business set-up. According to Earlier Media’s site, the company is “is backed by Milan Ventures, a NY based early stage VC fund.” Milan Ventures resists easy searching, but DomainTools.com lists Earlier Media’s domain as owned by a Los Angeles-based "Milan Ventures" with contacts sporting Break.com email addresses.

Kideos currently offers videos with little more income potential than a couple discreet Google-generated ads. The company has high hopes, however, that the site will literally be the tip of a kid-bucks iceberg. Solt tells Adweek that the site will become a funnel to other kid-oriented, income-generating sites. The company has also registered site names such as Boxcargames.com and Braindolphin.com, all grouped under the aegis of GameClassroom.com. In other words, look for a raft of edugamement options from the folks at Earlier Media. Break Media has a corner full of male young adults; the sister company expects to grab chunks of the preschool market.

This may represent a slight shift in the business model for marketing to children. Kideos may not be a vehicle for advertising, but a doorway into pay-to-play content. Whereas television programs once worked as bait for advertising’s hook, (literally) recycled television programming now may serve to hook kids into more direct purchasing. As COO Solt tells Adweek, “We think parents are going to want and be willing to pay for this content."

We shall see.

Friday, July 3, 2009

KTV On Demand - Kids'WB.com

TV Week's Vlada Gelman interviewed Warner Brothers' Senior VP, Digital, Brett Bouttier. The exec. proved to be something of a mensch, giving a young journalist an interview while he was still at the hospital after the birth of his son.

As Gelman's interview points out, since 2007 Bouttier has played a key role in making WB's program library available over the Internet and making those websites arenas for new program development. These are just a few of the pots Mr. Bouttier has been stirring; for instance, he drove development of the women's oriented parenting site momlogic.com. For you TV trivia buffs: He also held some responsibility for bringing TMZ to the broadcast screen.

As a result of his efforts, many of the shows that built KidsWB's popularity now live on line at KidsWB.com. Just as adults increasingly turn to Netflix on demand or Hulu.com, children are finding programming at the click of a mouse as readily as a click of the remote. As with Hulu.com, KidsWB.com provides perennial favorites that do not necessarily conflict with broadcast line-ups. There is little to no overlap with the material shown on CW4Kids, Warner's current Saturday morning offering.

Today's visitors navigating to Kids'WB.com can choose to watch a selection of classic Looney Toons and Tom and Jerry shorts; episodes of classic series including The Flintstones, The Jetsons, The Smurfs, and Thundercats; and such newer shows as Ozzy & Drix. The site also vigorously cross-promotes Warner-property DC Comics, inviting visitors to play games, download wallpaper and other digital goodies, and purchase toys and other merchandise featuring the likes of Batman, Green Arrow, and The Flash. Youngsters (or oldsters) who register with the site can create avatars that gain, store, and redeem points as they play games--presumably solidfying their loyalties to Warner's content.

At the moment, the site does not carry embedded commercials as Hulu.com does. Nevertheless, WB remains fixed on the bottom line. Links connect the acquisitive to a Batman-theme DC-branded online toy shop or to a store specializing in DVD packages. The latter appeals as much to parents as to youngsters. Compilations called Saturday Morning Cartoons: 1960s and Max Fleischer's Superman share shelf space with volumes of Freakazoid! and Star Wars: The Clone Wars--all processed through the WBshop.com.

Kids'WB.com is consciously aimed at kids between the ages of six and eleven. A sister site, Kids'WBjr.com provides content for younger viewers. For reasons that remain unclear, it uses a different video player from its older sibling--and this one keeps shutting down my browser. The shows are Baby Looney Tunes (inexplicably) mixed with a few Scooby-Doo and Flintstones episodes. The games and activities are simplified, presumably for smaller kids, although one wonders which preschooler would actually play these somewhat-small, not-quite-obvious pastimes. In short, it seems the digital world still has not yet figured out how to reach the youngest of us.

The sites do take pains to assure parents that Warner Brothers maintains only a limited interest in their children's identities and information. As with all children's content providers, they have to walk a thin line. On the one hand, they are aiming to provide the richest on-line experience possible, which includes some degree of interactivity. On the other hand, they need to reassure parents that their loved ones will remain safe. The Warner Brothers team works as hard as anyone to walk that line.


As Gelman's interview makes clear, Bouttier and the other folks behind WB's online world, like good TV people, remain focused on audience and audience demographics. In a phrase that begs further explanation, Bouttier noted, "KidsWB is growing at an immediately fast clip, reaching tons of kids and boys through the D.C. side of it."

Is it still a truism that girls are always just about to become very very important even as boys remain the most sought-after market? Is the basic assumption still that girls will watch programming for boys, but not vice-versa? Or was an executive who was more preoccupied with a new baby than his work just pointing out that his web site gets a lot of traffic from boys who love their comic book characters?

In any case, if you are reading this there is a good chance you will enjoy Kids’WB.com as much as any youngster.

Check out Vlada Gelman’s full article here.

Michael Jackson and The Jackson 5ive

The Jackson 5ive (1971-1973)

The tsunami of reportage following Michael Jackson’s death has paid little attention to his career as a cartoon figure. For two seasons between 1971 and 1973, animated versions of Jackson and his brothers appeared on ABC’s Saturday morning line-up as The Jackson 5ive.

The series came out of the Rankin/Bass production house, famous for such perennial favorites as Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964), Frosty, the Snowman (1969), Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (1970), and other holiday favorites. Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass did not specialize in drawn animation, but they had good reason to move into the cartoon world. However time-consuming drawing individual cels for each movement could be—even with the labor-saving techniques of “limited” animation, the process was nothing compared to the painstaking stop-motion process that brought Rudoph, Frosty, and Heat Miser to life. A season’s worth of shows demanded a faster process. Following in the dollar-dripping footsteps of William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, Rankin/Bass turned to drawings.

More accurately, they sub-contracted the animation process. Most of the cartoons originated in the studios of London-based Halas and Batchelor, who had received some acclaimed for their feature-length version of Animal Farm (1957). The team produced the cartoons in England (and some in Barcelona, Spain), synching the drawings to Amereican voice talent, although none of the Jacksons performed anything other than the songs for the show. The characters children heard as Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, Marlon, and Michael were actors. Rankin/Bass favorite and D-Day veteran Paul Frees, who played the cop and Santa in Frosty, Burgermeister Meisterburger in Santa Claus, gave voice to Manager/Swami Berry Gordy in The Jackson 5ive. [You may have also enjoyed Frees’s voice as you nestled in your Doom Buggy traveling through the Haunted Mansion in Disneyland, Walt Disney World, and the other parks. He also voiced both John Lennon and Paul McCartney in The Beatles animated series]

There’s good reason that the memorials generally ignore the short-lived series. For the most part, the show was dreck. Like so many of the Saturday-morning cartoons of the late-1960s and early-1970s, The Jackson 5ive set low-budget animation to scripts that would embarrass even the most mercenary hacks.

An episode easily obtained on youtube.com, “A Rare Pearl,” has the brothers Jackson swearing off women forever after a conniving vixen rips off, humiliates, or otherwise exploits each of them. In this particular episode, while flying back to Detroit to record a new album, the brothers lose their resolve after meeting an attractive flight attendant nervously trying to survive her first day on the job. Ever helpful, the Jacksons help serve the other passengers on the flight, entertaining them with one of the episode’s de rigeur pair of songs. They spend the episode’s second half scurrying around the attendant’s house hiding from her overly-protective “mother.” In a moment reminiscent of any given Scooby Doo episode, the final scene reveals that mom is really the attendant’s football-playing brother in disguise, and that she actually has four sisters who all want to date the Jacksons.

Michael gets the last lines, telling the youngest sister that he cannot help falling in love with her seeing as she has “neat pets like two lizards and a parakeet.” When she smiles and reaches to kiss him, Michael backs away admonishing her, “Now girl, don’t push it. Don’t push it.”

The scene’s emphasis on his love for animals and ambivalence toward woman may now carry hints of prescience. At the time, however, it was something of a throwaway line. Indeed, Michael hardly occupied center stage. Today we recognize MJ as the group’s real star, but apparently no one told the writers. The youngest brother got as much screen time and attention as the others, or less. As a result, the one Jackson who might have actually been able to relate to the youngsters turning the dial was relegated to the background in favor of his older brothers.

Not only was the writing as unimaginative as many early 1970s cartoons, it was hardly age appropriate. For example, “A Rare Pearl” has the Jacksons at one point mimicking a variety of stars from early film, including the Keystone Kops, Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, and the oh-so-recognizable Ben Turpin—all done to “Never Can Say Goodbye.” One wonders whether the Jacksons, much less their young audiences would have any appreciation of the references. Neither were the scripts particularly well tuned to American audiences. Keen observers can find foreign residue sticking to scripts and drawings, such as in scenes featuring the brothers in mishaps with “custard pies,” or in which a young Michael hides in a television set left empty by a repairman who “took away the works.”

The shows contained few treats for animation fanatics. The music sections did allow artists a degree of freedom, but aside from some cool rotoscoping [the technique of drawing from film to make a “real” film look like a cartoon—think A-Ha’s “Take on Me” video or Richard Linklater’s 2006 film version of A Scanner Darkly] most of the these sections read like forced psychedelia. Otherwise, the production was cheaply forgettable.

It is easy to imagine that the people who wrote and produced The Jackson 5ive had little interaction with the Jacksons, or even their management. The program was one of several animated children’s programs based on popular music groups. The phenomenon had begun in 1965 with ABC’s The Beatles. Designed to capitalize on the initial burst of Beatlemania, the Saturday-morning series turned out to be a minor hit. Its thirty-nine episodes ran for four seasons on the network. John, Paul, George, and Ringo contributed nothing other than their music.

The Beatles’ success unleashed a small flood of animated shows focused on music groups. Although shows such as The Groovie Ghoulies (1970-1972) and Josie and the Pussycats (1970-1976) gained popularity, none had more impact than The Archie Show (1968-1969; syndicated until 1978), a cartoon loosely based on Bob Montana’s Archie comic books. The “band” supposedly consisting of Archie, Jughead, Veronica, and the rest of the gang sang a variety of songs, including smash hit, “Sugar Sugar,” the biggest-selling single of 1969 (something to remember in the midst of Woodstock reminiscences). On screen, the cartoon characters played the music; off screen, songwriting credits went to Andy Kim and Phil Spector-Associate/Neil Diamond-discoverer Jeff Barry; Ron Dante and Toni Wine performed it. (Ray Stevens, who wrote “Everything is Beautiful [In Its Own Way],” “The Streak,” and “Mississippi Squirrel Revival,” provided hand claps on the track.)

Making up musical groups could work just fine. As both The Monkees (1966-1968) and The Partridge Family (1970-1974) proved, musical hits could provide ancillary income and extra publicity. Creating storylines around an already-established act, however, could be even easier—even better if they actually were family. The Beatles might have seemed like brothers, how much better if they actually had been brothers?

The cartoon version of The Jackson 5ive was part of the line-up assembled by ABC’s wunderkind, Michael Eisner, who had good reason to believe that children’s programming would provide an avenue for his further advancement. Children’s programming in the form of The Mickey Mouse Club (1955-1959) had been one of the bootstraps that pulled the network from imminent collapse in 1955. In the mid-1960s another programming prodigy, Fred Silverman, had made his reputation by revamping the Saturday morning line-up at CBS, turning cheap animation into advertising gold. The Jackson Five presented Eisner with the opportunity to capitalize on the success of a musical fad, as The Beatles had done, without having to make up a family connection.

The Jackson 5ive proved viable enough that it not only renewed for another season, but Eisner and Rankin/Bass teamed up on a similar gimmick. The Osmonds (1972), a short-lived series proved notable for actually using members of the Osmond family as voice talent, but was otherwise undistinguished.

Eisner had his own version of programming's golden gut, however. Hip to the scene—both in terms of popular culture and the tremors rumbling through the industry that regulators might demand more educational programming—he also oversaw development of the series of short cartoons, Schoolhouse Rock! Although neither The Jackson 5ive nor The Osmonds made for smash hits, Eisner's accomplishments as ABC’s daytime chief earned him quick promotion, launching him toward mogul status.

And the The Jackson 5ive? The show remained largely in obscurity. MTV resurrected the series during the third week of June, 1995 during its “MJTV” week coinciding with release of the “HIStory” album. The 1998 book Rock Stars Do The Dumbest Things included it among MJ’s many sins (although it must be counted a venial one amidst the others). Jackson himself revealed little interest in the series. In the end, the series stands as little more than one of the many ways that people sought to capitalize on the mythos—however new—attached to all things Jackson. As such, The Jackson 5ive may reveal more about the nature of television and capitalization on the children’s marketing in the 1970s than about the steadfastly inscrutable King of Pop.

Two bonus sites:
Rick Goldschmidt's Rankin/Bass blog

Michael Jackson and his brothers in a 1973 Alpha-bits commercial