Saturday, February 06, 2010

Child's Play - An Interview With Nickelodeon UK's Digital Director Roy Edmonds


Child's play

Kids are much more savvy about new technology than many adults, says Nickelodeon digital director Roy Edmonds, so online has to be more than an extension of TV properties

When Nickelodeon's forthcoming series The Troop, about a secret society that battles monsters, begins in the UK in the next few weeks, its website will have a strong emphasis on mission-based gaming. For digital director Roy Edmonds, it's another example of how online properties should be destinations in their own right.

"We'd like to get to the point where we're involved with shows at the earliest stage and thinking about the interactivity that surrounds that," he says. "It's not about coming in at the end and saying we need to build a website, what do we need to put on it? I want to be there at the start of these programme developments."

So this year Edmond's team will be busy with 3D gaming, two-player games, augmented reality, online safety and a virtual pet project. This month sees the launch of Nick UK's first iPhone application, developed in-house to support SpongeBob Squarepants, featuring a game, short-form video and episode guides. It follows an augmented reality competition last year, created by Codegent, that asked kids to find SpongeBob cards hidden online and upload videos explaining why they were the character's biggest fan. It was part of the relaunch of the digital offering at Nickelodeon, with 2009 the 'Year of the Sponge' when SpongeBob received his own bespoke website under Edmonds' direction.

Responsible for the day-to-day business strategy, production and operation of Nickelodeon's digital division, Edmonds has spent most of his career within children's online entertainment, passing through the halls of the publicly funded BBC and the infinitely more commercial entertainment giant the Disney Corporation.

At both he learned that online content could achieve different goals, with the BBC being challenged by "an embarrassment of riches" and Disney creating content ultimately aimed at "pushing through to purchase".

Moving to Nickelodeon in 2008, Edmonds has taken up the online responsibility for characters including market-leading SpongeBob and pretenders to the throne Dora the Explorer, Diego, and Ben and Holly's Little Kingdom. This last was revamped online by digital agency Complete Control last year to feature extra functions including games and video clips. Last year also saw the launch of a blog for 10-13-year-olds called TeeNick.

These initiatives tap into Edmonds' belief that children deserve online content designed for them from the start. Some may think the entertainment of children is simply about leaving them alone with a flashing box in the corner of the room, whether that be a TV or PC. This is an antiquated way of thinking, though, says Edmonds, and in many cases, especially online, children are more adaptable and savvy than their parents.

"Anyone working within the children's entertainment industry must recognise that the way children consume media is changing," he says. "There's still a distinction between what's on the TV and what's online. The key thing to remember is that today's children have grown up with all this technology so to them it's just stuff."

This is something that worries Edmonds about many of his competitors, which often think of the online representation of a show's brand as an afterthought, or at best a direct representation of what's seen on TV. "It's interesting the different approaches broadcasters take in delivering online content," he says. "To some it's about cross-platform experiences, 360-degree commissioning. But at the other end there are those who think it's still just about supporting the programme brand. I think you need to have a mix of both approaches."

It's a point he's evangelical about and, after 18 months at Nickelodeon, he's using this year to shift the emphasis his young audience place on online content. Fundamental to this is being involved in development from the start.

This seems to be the new emphasis Edmonds brings to his department, although if you probe deeper you realise that it's children's own shift in attitude that has led to them demanding more from their online experience. "User testing is so important. It's something that since I arrived we've done more of," he says. "Kids are great fun to be around, incredibly honest and much more savvy than we give them credit for. But equally they're still children and recognising what their abilities are is important. Some things they'll fly through and others that we see as quite easy to do online they may find more challenging."

The team also looks at all feedback, whether it's through the TeeNick blogs or slightly old-school email. Such involvement, Edmonds says, must be rewarded with a sense of responsibility. "I wouldn't want to do anything that in any way would put children at risk, so everything is pre-moderated and we have an incredibly thorough process for checking content before it goes live. In that sense, safeguarding the audience is an absolute priority."

Along with this, he's focused on the task at hand: growing online share for the Nickelodeon brands in an ever-widening children's entertainment marketplace. So what else does he expect from 2010?

Edmonds indicates that the iPhone will become increasingly part of the Nickelodeon digital strategy, due to its increasing take-up among children. "The one area we're focused on at the moment is iPhone development," he says. "A lot of that's instigated by the US office and distributed to the regions via the international office, but there's still scope for us to do something in the UK. I'm keen that whatever we do, it's because it's distinctive and delivers something besides supporting a brand."

Curriculum Vitae

Name: Roy Edmonds

Title: Digital director, Nickelodeon

Age: 37

Career: 1993-97 Researcher, BBC

1997-98 Producer,

1998-99 Senior producer, BBC Online

1999-2001 Senior producer, BBC Entertainment

2001-06 Interactive executive editor, BBC Children's

2006-07 New media manager, Walt Disney

2007-08 Digital manager, Discovery Networks

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