Cartoon Network Pushes Online Gaming

Sep 2, 2007  •  Post A Comment

Cartoon Network is betting that its expertise in online gaming can add up to greater reach, the all-important metric in the battle for online advertising dollars.
Cartoon, which lags far behind competitors Nickelodeon and Disney Channel in the race for Internet audience, later this month plans to launch “Master Control” as both a stand-alone Web site and a destination within CartoonNetwork.com. Kids can join teams online and compete each day to win enough votes to determine which show Cartoon Network will run on-air at 5:30 p.m. that 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, allowing kids to play games online against other kids. Mini Match will launch with four virtual games, with new games to be added throughout the year. The network also will add more online video content — both user-generated and professional content from its stable of shows — to the site.
The goal is to grow its audience, which hovered around 6 million unique viewers per month in May, June and July. Meanwhile, audience figures for both Disney and Nickelodeon have ranged from 17 million to 20 million per month during the last three months, according to figures from Nielsen//NetRatings.
Closing that gap won’t be easy, but it is important for Cartoon to try to do so, since the dominant currency for online advertising is unique viewers.
What’s more, as viewer behavior shifts online — especially in the younger demographics that kids networks court — Internet advertising will grow in importance as a profit center for networks. Total Internet ad dollars should hit $21.7 billion this year, up nearly 29 percent over last year. That compares to a mere 3.2 percent growth rate for total ad spending in the U.S. this year, according to figures from market research firm eMarketer.
“Reach is our No. 1 goal internally, building audience is our No. 1 goal,” said Paul Condolora, senior VP and general manager for Cartoon Network new media.
Gaming is central to the network’s growth strategy because gaming is a niche Cartoon Network believes it has carved out as an online differentiator. “Most people are coming to the site and spending time on the site and playing games,” he said, “and advertising in front of games has become more attractive to the ad community, so we are creating inventory in a relevant area. We are using gaming as a device to create awareness and affinity for our characters in these shows.”
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-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.”
Gaming is a huge commitment for other networks, too. In July, MTV Networks said it will invest $500 million over the next two years in gaming. As part of that commitment, Nickelodeon will spend $100 million to develop additional casual online games. Nickelodeon also will introduce massive multiplayer gaming on Nicktropolis.com, its virtual-world online destination for kids.
Gaming is a sound growth strategy, said Michael Hayes, senior VP and managing director for the interactive group in North America at media buying agency Initiative. “Games can help drive traffic numbers and repeat visitations to the site,” he said. “Whether it drives up uniques substantially remains to be seen. Everyone wants to grow uniques, and in order to do that they will have to tell people about it and harvest traffic somewhere.”
For now, Cartoon Network will focus on driving viewers to the Web site via on-air promos. Word of mouth also could help, especially as it relates to games.
While unique audience is the dominant metric for online buying and selling, “time spent” is becoming more important. In July Nielsen//NetRatings said it will report time spent as a benchmark, in addition to page views and unique audiences.
Time spent is often a barometer for consumer engagement, and engagement can be music to an advertiser’s ear, though it’s still not fully understood. A viewer might spend an hour on a page, but see the same ad once, or a viewer could spend an hour playing an advergame and be engaged with the brand the entire time.
“Time spent is interesting,” Mr. Hayes said. “It’s not clear yet how it’s used, but it has a lot of promise for advertising in terms of determining value.”
Cartoon Network will be well-positioned if time spent becomes a more vital metric for luring ad dollars. In July, visitors to the Cartoon Network site spent an average of 83 minutes on the site throughout the month, compared to 63 minutes for Nickelodeon and 35 minutes for Disney, according to Nielsen//NetRatings.
That’s an impressive number, according to Paul Verna, senior analyst with eMarketer. “It’s a huge brand builder when you have that many people spend that much time on your site,” he said.
Games have long been tied thematically to Cartoon Network’s on-air programming, namely animation. “Back in 2001 and 2002 we decided to create games that look just like the shows,” said Art Roche, creative director for Cartoon Network new media. “We have a game called Battle Ready and the environment is the same as the show it’s based on, ‘Ben Ten.'”
Cartoon Network is developing a massive multiplayer game called FusionFall for launch in summer 2008.
The network’s Master Control program should run through January.
Nickelodeon also has let viewers program the network. Last fall, Nickelodeon allowed viewers to vote online for their favorite “SpongeBob SquarePants” episodes. The fan votes determined the order of the SpongeBob marathon that ran over Veteran’s Day, which became the network’s most-watched day ever in terms of total viewers.

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