Degrassi going Down Under

Degrassi going Down Under::[Final Edition]
Judy Monchuk. Kingston Whig – Standard. Kingston, Ont.: Jul 15, 2002. pg. 21

BANFF – Degrassi’s virtual classroom is about to accept exchange students.

After taking Canadian kids by storm, the groundbreaking interactive Web site for CTV’s popular Degrassi: The Next Generation is about to branch into Australia and Britain.

More than 54,000 Canadians have registered for private d-mail – Degrassi mail – in the virtual community school of http://www.degrassi.tv.

“It’s just a fraction of our audience, but it’s a great fraction,” Roma Khanna, head of the Web design team for the site.

The vast majority of those are girls aged 13-17, who visit three to five times a week and stay from 30 minutes to two hours – exchanging d-mails and chatting on classroom boards.

“This is an incredibly sticky site,” said Khanna.

Since last September, they’ve posted more than 225,000 messages and written more than 200,000 d-mails to each other and Degrassi characters.

Beginning this fall, they’ll be able to chat with foreign fans on a special international board.

Students can also visit the online guidance counsellor for help and advice on everything from gossip to gay parents via links to sites like Kids Help Hotline and Media Awareness Network.

Developing the Internet presence wasn’t cheap.

Degrassi.tv cost $1.2 million to set up – money provided by CTV. It will cost about $300,000 a year to maintain, upgrade and moderate with a core of about 15 people involved in its operation.

Degrassi’s executive producer Stephen Stohn says the core values of the popular series – that kids are not alone and they have the ability to make choices – has been carried over to the Web.

Like the TV show, which has built a devoted following for its realistic take on teen life, the site is open to discussing any of the dilemmas facing today’s kids in junior and senior high.

Stohn says that includes any topic that may be on the edge. This season’s TV slate will address child abuse, date rape and competition.

Although the site is monitored, kids online are often quickest to jump on any offensive posting – flagging it for the moderator and personally blasting the sender.

“Amazingly, it’s the kids who flag it first,” said Khanna. “If someone puts up something that any of us would feel is offensive, somebody replies almost instantaneously with ‘Wow, are you a jerk.’ ”

Once enrolled, students get a steady stream of “d-mails” from their classmate characters and buzz about ongoing subplots. Sophisticated software allows updates based on what show has been broadcast in each student’s country.

Viewers in the United States, Britain and Australia will not be seeing the same episodes as Canadians at the same time, so the d- mails are co-ordinated to not spoil plotlines.

Second-season production has begun on the 22 episodes of Degrassi: TNG, with Web writers in on story meetings with the TV writers. Regular reading of the postings allows the writers to make note of language the d-mailers are using, so they can accurately capture the teen voice.

Such expanse for a site was unheard of when it was launched less than a year ago, but Web producers are now lining up for suggestions on how to get backers for interactive proposals.

Stohn says today’s kids are so wired, it’s important to connect with them on more than one level and include those realities in any stories about their lives.

“We need to reach them the same way they’re communicating amongst themselves: on their cellular telephones, through their pagers, via ICQ as well as the old fashioned way of talking to somebody,” said Stohn. “If we’re going to reach them, we should be using the same technology they’re using.”

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