Degrassi encore takes TV to next generation

The Globe and Mail Report on Business

The Globe and Mail
Report on Business: Managing Wednesday, March 13, 2002 B11


Degrassi encore takes TV to next generation
Attracts new audience of techno-savvy multitasking teens by using multimedia, e-mail, wireless PDAs and interactive TV
Kevin Marron
Special to The Globe and Mail

When the Kids of Degrassi Street made its debut in 1979, the edgy and topical youth-oriented show seemed like the coolest thing on the box to teenagers who had grown up with television.

Now, its original fans are approaching middle age and television is often just background noise to a new generation of techno-savvy multitasking teens.

Yet, the Degrassi series, cancelled in 1990 but relaunched this year as Degrassi: The Next Generation,has managed to find a new audience by using the World Wide Web, multimedia, e-mail, wireless personal digital assistants (PDAs) and the latest interactive television technology in an effort to remain cool and relevant to a new audience.

“We believe that Degrassi: The Next Generation is a glimpse of ‘TV: The Next Generation,’ ” says Paul Kaliciak, director of interactive programming at CTV Inc. who is developing a multimedia system to allow TV viewers to glean information about the show as it is being aired.

The show was created when there were no home computers and the Internet had not been heard of, says Degrassi’s co-creator Linda Schuyler. Now, she says, “kids can be simultaneously using their computer to listen to music, do homework and chat with friends, while they have the TV blaring and they are talking on the phone.”

Nevertheless, Ms. Schuyler maintains, children today are not that different from the previous generation in other ways.

“So, the challenge of the new Degrassi has been to keep the emotional truth of the teenage years, while reflecting the great technological influences on these young people’s lives,” she says.

“If they’re watching TV less, then we’ve got to get them through the Web, attract them back with a more enhanced kind of television or get them through PDAs or mobile phones. We’ve just got to get them and make them part of our world however we can,” says Stephen Stohn, the show’s executive producer and executive vice-president of Toronto film production company Epitome Pictures Inc.

The multiplatform approach that Degrassi is taking to build an audience represents the way of the future for television producers and broadcasters, says Roma Khanna, executive vice-president of Toronto-based Snap Media Corp., producer of interactive content for the series. “We can no longer look at individual channels of distribution for content as stand-alone because the audience doesn’t look at it that way.”

The show’s Web site, , is designed to enhance viewers’ experience by immersing them in a fictional on-line world, where they receive e-mail messages from Degrassi characters, look inside characters’ lockers and browse through the school year book. A new feature also lets fans receive messages and updates on Web-enabled cellphones.

The Web site has more than 40,000 registered users, most of them girls between the ages of 13 and 17, according to a recent on-line survey. More than 40 per cent of them visit the site at least four times a week and a third spend more than 30 minutes per visit.

These numbers suggest all kinds of business opportunities, Ms. Khanna says. “We know our audience and we can talk to them one on one on a daily basis through their e-mail box. We’ll be able to monetize that: It’s advertising; it’s sponsorship; it’s commerce; it’s looking at all the different streams and putting it together in a way that makes sense.

“But we’ve been treading slowly until now because they are children and we want to do it right.”

Degrassi’s producers and broadcaster CTV are also trying to make the experience of watching the show more enticing for its busy-fingered fans by creating an enhanced television application that lets them click with their remote controls to get on-screen information about the story and characters.

For example, in a scene where one character appears frustrated with another, viewers will be able to click on an icon to see text explaining what the characters are thinking, or text and pictures recapping a confrontation the characters had in a previous episode.

Mr. Kaliciak, the CTV interactive programming director, says he believes this will break new ground in the use of interactive television in Canada. But the technology, designed to run on the Bell ExpressVu satellite service, is so advanced that it is not quite ready for prime time. It was to have been available for next Sunday’s season finale of the current series Degrassi: The Next Generation,but Mr. Kaliciak says his team is still ironing out some compatibility issues with the satellite system and the interactive version will be aired at a later date.

Mr. Stohn, the show’s executive producer, says the Degrassi audience is a good one to test.

“The kids who are watching our show are very computer savvy. Hand them a remote control with a sign on the television that says ‘push select’ and they’ll know what to do.


ILLUSTRATION: Illustration
SUBJECT: Television; Multimedia; Internet; Marketing



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