Nearly 40 years ago "Sesame Street" forged a new path in educational television for preschoolers. But in recent years, as even very young children have migrated online, the show's Web efforts have lagged far behind those of commercial competitors like the Walt Disney Company and Viacom's Nickelodeon.
The show's nonprofit parent, Sesame Workshop, hopes to change that on Aug. 11, when the new Web site sesamestreet.org goes live. Developed over two years at a cost of $14 million, the site is making its debut the same day as Season 39 of "Sesame Street," seen weekdays on PBS. Kept under tight wraps until now, the site will be previewed for some in its target parent audience at the BlogHer conference for female bloggers in San Francisco this weekend.
While there are no plans to discontinue the television show, Sesame Workshop officials have high hopes for the broadband site. "We view this as really the future of the workshop, as becoming the primary channel of distribution down the line," Gary Knell, president and chief executive of Sesame Workshop, said in a telephone interview.
Knell has set ambitious goals for the new site, asking the staff to double the use of the current site — about 1.5 million unique users each month — in just a year or two, he said. The television show, by comparison, draws six million to seven million weekly viewers, on average, he said. (Older "Sesame Street" episodes are shown on the cable channel PBS Kids Sprout, a joint venture of PBS, Sesame Workshop, Comcast and Hit Entertainment.)
A robust Web site is a necessity for children's television companies, said Sandra Calvert, director of the Children's Digital Media Center at Georgetown University. "Children expect it, and parents expect it," she said. "Parents overwhelmingly think that computers are the gateway to children's futures."
But the sites are expensive to develop. And unlike Nickelodeon, Disney and Time Warner, which Knell said control about 80 percent of the worldwide children's television market, Sesame Workshop has a limited number of other on-air opportunities to promote its site, making the challenges all the greater.
"For Sesame as an independent producer to try to compete for eyeballs, we've got to be proficient technologically and innovative in content," he said.
Like the "Sesame Street" television show, the site was based on research. In this case it involved about 100 children of all socioeconomic levels at three preschools in the New York area, said Glenda Revelle, vice president for research for Sesame's digital content. The research found that children did not want a linear televisionlike experience on the Web site, she said, and that online as on television, they responded strongly to having a Muppet guide them.
So unlike other Web sites, which rely heavily on Flash animation, this one features a live-action Muppet video that welcomes children with a new educational theme every day.
Perhaps equally important is a feature that children will not even notice: a proprietary, trademarked option, known as PlaySafe, intended to reassure parents. When the downloadable PlaySafe software is activated, it is technologically difficult for children (but not adults) to navigate away from the site, so parents can theoretically leave children alone in front of the computer without worrying that they will accidentally stumble onto inappropriate content, buy something or delete files.
Although many early-childhood experts strongly recommend that parents and children use educational Web sites together, the reality is often different. None of the other major children's educational play sites has such a feature, Workshop officials say. The system was developed in conjunction with Cignex and Firefly Interactive.
Each day on the new "Sesame Street" site, the Muppet video will welcome children with a different theme, be it "the number 5" or "sharing." The Muppet will point children to a big green button, which starts a daily playlist of seven short alternating videos and games tied to the theme.
Using a simple design scheme, the site's content, including 3,000 videos and 400 games, is reached via areas for games, videos and customizable playlists. There's a section where the content is organized by specific Muppet, and a "My Sesame" area for saving favorites. Some games use a keyboard, for children who don't have the motor skills for a mouse, and many use video, not animation. Segments for some new video-based Web games were filmed at the same time as the television show, said Miles Ludwig, vice president and executive producer of Sesame Workshop's Digital Media Group, adding that a year from now the TV-Web crossover will be even more extensive, "to deepen the learning."
As on the current site a big yellow star replaces the arrow cursor, and links are surrounded by sparkles, concepts that are easier for young minds to grasp, Revelle said.
The site will be free, supported by sponsorships at the bottom of the page aimed at parents, and by a request for donations, to underscore the workshop's nonprofit status. "We won't do marketing to kids," Knell said.
By contrast, commercial rivals like Nickelodeon's Noggin, and even PBS, have begun paid Web sites, to complement their free sites. "We felt subscription violates the mission of what we're trying to do here, which is to reach as many kids as possible with our content," Knell said.