Preschoolers will soon be able to use the family PC to listen to nursery rhymes with Fred Rogers’ Prince Tuesday, cook with the Berenstain Bears and bird-watch with Curious George.
Dozens of these games that let kids interact with TV characters will be offered in PBS Kids Play!, a new subscription online games service designed to teach kids ages 3 to 6 progressively challenging lessons in more than 30 curriculum categories.
Launching in late January at PBSKidsPlay.org, the service will include activities based on five different kids’ shows and will regularly add new programs, exercises and games.
Though the leap into interactive games is a big one, the adoption of the subscription business model is an equally notable change, adding a needed revenue stream but lacking the free-for-everyone quality that has been public broadcasting’s traditional calling card.
Subscriptions will cost $9.95 a month — or $79 a year — and accommodate up to four individual profiles for households with more than one child.
PBS previewed Kids Play! for pubTV staffers earlier this month at its development conference in Palm Desert, Calif. Project overseers also recruited 70 families with kids in the target age group to test an early version of the service, beginning next week, and weigh in on its appeal and usability.
“Our mantra around here is try, learn, revise,” says Ben Grimley, director of PBS’s interactive businesses.
PBS Interactive oversees the service and in some cases develops the content as well. Partners include the producers of the various shows involved and software studios that specialize in educational kids games. PBS is covering development costs but declined to discuss financial details.
The plan for Kids Play! was hatched two years ago as part of PBS’s Next Generation Media initiative.
As with so many other buzzed-about pubcaster projects these days, the goal for Kids Play, Grimley says, is to reach beyond broadcast to grab new audiences on the new-media platforms they already embrace. In the process, PBS aims to instill deep-seated affection for PBS Kids characters by letting the young players learn and interact with them.
To succeed, the service would have to be financially self-sustaining and carve out a demonstrably educational niche consistent with pubTV’s mission and differentiated from other online game sites for kids, he says.
Other web-based kids’ game services such as Disney’s Preschool Time Online and Nickelodeon’s My Noggin, also priced at $9.95 a month, offer entertainment “with some educational claims” but without the standards-based curriculum component that is “part of PBS’s DNA,” Grimley says.
“We think we’re breaking the mold here,” he says.
Will public TV stations have a role in this emerging media model? In the past, some station managers have been critical of an online strategy that they said centralized online assets on PBS.org, drawing viewers away from local sites.
Past critics, such as Oregon Public Broadcasting President Steve Bass, say the new PBS Interactive team led by Jason Seiken is working to rectify this issue with locally embedded video players and other projects.)
Like PBS.org, the Kids Play! portal will be immediately localized to show content pertinent to the user’s local station and region, if parents click through station sites to get to the service. And if the parents don’t take that step, the site will localize later on, based on the ZIP code associated with the parents’ credit card. The service will include a link back to the respective station sites.
PBS will work with stations that want to offer the service as a pledge premium or as part of kids’ clubs, Grimley says. After the service launches, PBS will put together a voluntary charter group of stations to experiment with different business models and develop best practices for pubcasters to promote and use the service locally.
A document posted on PBS Connect outlines the charter program in more detail.
Educational games are not exactly new territory for PBS. Some programs offer simple animated games in their sections of PBSKids.org.
What is new, Grimley says, is the strict curriculum-based focus. The lessons are based on standards devised by Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL), a Denver-based research nonprofit that advises educators and school districts.
|Parents can monitor how their kids are doing at skill-building games. Two blue dots under “Letters” in Annie’s Progress Chart (partial screen shown) indicate that she has completed two of the three skill levels. (Image courtesy of PBS.)|
The curriculum categories run the gamut from traditional subjects such as literacy, math and science to lessons designed to foster social and emotional growth. All the games let kids fiddle with the features in addition to completing the structured exercises.
An elaborate parents’ section will let them monitor children’s progress. And the portal’s recommendation engine will try to keep the young players intellectually well-rounded. For example, if a kid is whizzing through the Berenstain Bears math games, then the recommender will encourage him or her to try the Super Why! literacy exercises.
In focus groups earlier this year, parents and kids responded favorably to static slides of the material, Grimley says. Roughly two-thirds of the parents said they’d be willing to pay for it, he says.
That’s good news for a organization that isn’t accustomed to charging for its offerings.
Indeed, even some participating in the project acknowledged having mixed emotions about the fee-based model.
“We had a lot of discussion about whether it was conflict with our mission,” says Cathy Droz, director of special projects at Family Communications, producer of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. The game based on the live-action classic is set in an animated version of the late Fred Rogers’ Neighborhood of Make-Believe.
In the end, Droz says, producers’ excitement about the project’s potential and desire to support PBS’s efforts spurred them to sign on. “Fred was very committed to PBS in all ways,” Droz says. “We recognize that it’s been difficult for PBS to get enough funding for what it wants to do.”
This is exactly why the subscription model is a good idea, according to some pubTV execs. Rather than use member dues to fund special projects designed “to get more of my viewers stuck on PBS.org,” OPB’s Bass says, PBS should experiment with different revenue strategies.
“The whole notion that we have to give away everything for free is not going to allow us to be sustainable in the long term,” he says.
In conference calls about the new game service, Grimley says, some stations voiced “legitimate concerns” about the digital divide that keeps web-based offerings out of the hands of the nearly 30 percent of the population that doesn’t have online access.
To help bridge the gap, PBS may offer the service free to local libraries, Grimley says, but that plan is still being considered.
Parents who sign up for Kids Play must download the service onto their computers. They can put it on multiple machines so different kids can play simultaneously.
The platform is a “walled garden,” Grimley says. Though the service is web-based, the young players aren’t able to leap the wall and surf the Internet.
Players scroll through the neighborhoods of the various shows and characters and pick their game and level of difficulty (you can choose from three levels for each game). All players initially start at the beginning of the games and then progress into more challenging tiers as they complete the exercises.
In tests, kids in the target 3-to-6 age range responded well to the games’ usability and their content. The 3-year-olds had no problem dragging and clicking their mice through the exercises, Grimley says, “and the sixes didn’t think it was too babyish.”
The whimsical, bright-hued games are designed to be immersive, filling the entire PC screen. When Curious George peers through his binoculars, the screen becomes a pair of eyeholes. Players then see an array of brightly colored birds and click on which ones don’t fit with the others.
An interactive version of the National Geographic Society’s Mama Mirabelle’s Home Movies lets kids create paintings with brushes shaped like animal tracks. If they decide to erase the canvas, as it were, an animated elephant washes the image away with a trunkful of water.
“Kids love that part,” Grimley said as he demonstrated the games last week.
For the Mister Rogers game, the Boston-based software developer Fablevision reimagined the show’s Neighborhood of Make Believe as an interactive, navigable world where kids can step inside King Friday’s castle and other Rogers hangouts.
“Fred always wanted to have the puppets come alive and have feet and walk around,” Droz says. “He used to love to say the Neighborhood of Make-Believe is a place where anything can happen.”
That’s tough to pull off in the studio, she says. But in a land where puppets can sprout feet, not much seems out of the question.
Web page posted Oct. 26, 2007, updated Jan. 12, 2008
Copyright 2007 by Current Publishing Committee