Wednesday, July 25, 2007

ToonTown, Cartoon Network Universe...More News on the Kid-Targeted MMOG Front

Yesterday's KidScreen Daily reported an announcement by Cartoon Network that it would be unveiling its upcoming MMOG Cartoon Network Universe: Fusion Fall at Comic-Con today (**Update: read Izzy Neis' post about it here**). Some of the game's creators will be on hand to answer questions and talk about status/development, and a beta version will be available for demo play. My fingers are crossed that we'll get some good coverage, since the game launch is still a year away and I'm endlessly curious about what kind of game it will be. There's also been a bit of news lately about Disney's Toontown MMOG for kids, and its upcoming beta launch of a limited, ad-supported (versus $9.95/month subscription) version of the popular game. You can read some of the coverage at Virtual World News, Mediaweek, or PaidContent.org.

While an unlimited version will still be available at the regular subscription rate, the ad-based area will be free and feature many of the same games and activities. From the PaidContent article:
Paul Yanover, EVP and managing director for Disney Online, said that the change is driven by a desire to increase the amount of users. But the timing also comes as Nickelodeon’s free, kid-targeted virtual world Nicktropolis prepares to begin accepting ads. Other MMOG sites for children, like subscription-based ClubPenguin, also are growing in popularity. Since its January launch, no-charge Nicktropolis has grown to 1.4 million unique users as of May, according to comScore, besting Toontown’s 1.165 million users. And, coming next year, Cartoon Network plans to introduce its own MMOG.

Reportedly, Disney will also be using this same ad/subscription hybrid model for its much-delayed Pirates of the Caribbean Online.

I've been studying these early versions of kid-targeted "MMOGs" for a couple of years now, starting with Toontown, Neopets and Habbo Hotel in 2003, and more recently adding newcomers BarbieGirls.com, TheBigRip/GalaXseeds, Foster's Big Fat Awesome House Party and Nicktropolis to my research schedule (I'll get around to Club Penguin and Webkinz eventually...I'm doing television-themed games first, then toy-based games). Over time, and particularly with the newer games, kids' MMOGs are finally starting to incorporate features found in more traditionally-defined MMOGs, like World of Warcraft and EverQuest. Sort of. The vast majority, however, contain certain limitations and common features that set them in a category apart when it comes to theorizing and thinking about massively multiplayer online games and all that they entail. For example:

- Kid-targeted MMOGs are highly promotional in nature
So far, with the exceptions of Club Penguin (which appears to be more like a social-networking sites than an MMOG anyway), all of the kid-targeted MMOGs are heavily branded by the toy or media companies that created them. Okay, so licensing is a pretty popular practice in digital games generally, and many teen/adult-targeted MMOGs contained themes and characters taken from other media--Lord of the Rings Online and Star Wars Galaxies inevitably spring to mind, though game scholars have emphasized how liberally even unlicensed games borrow from established properties (Lord of the Rings and Dungeons and Dragons in particular) and genres. But in kids' MMOGs, the practice seems to have been reinterpreted in a way that emphasizes the marketing dimension of cross-media adaptation instead of sublimating it. For example, I highly doubt that LOTRO has a room in Minas Tirith where players are encouraged to watch trailers or clips from the films (and please let me know if they do!)...the way they do for Nickelodeon television shows in Nicktropolis. And while advergaming and in-game ads are slowly creeping into even the most popular and fantastical teen/adult-MMOGs, these practices are already common and excessive in kids' MMOG.

The argument might be made, of course, that kids' MMOGs are ad-supported because of parental, cultural or financial barriers in implementing a subscription model when it comes to youngsters. The fact that Toontown successfully operated under a subscription-model for four years would seem to contradict this assumption, as does the past success of things like Pokemon cards and other collectibles, which require a comparable ongoing financial investment that kids are nonetheless often able to sustain. The reliance on advertising revenue also seems to limit what the games can do in terms of the quality of graphics, richness of soundscapes, complexity of gameplay, etc. (are these limitations financial or aesthetic?) As it stands, none of the kid-targeted MMOGs came anywhere near teen/adult-MMOG in terms of visual, audio, or gameplay sophistication. The games are simpler and perhaps more accessible (for different browsers, connection speeds, etc.), but also years behind when it comes to aesthetics and technical features.

- "Safety First" puts multiplayer interaction last
With the growing moral panic that predators could use social-networking sites to contact kids (for example, MySpace just announced that 29,000 of its members are registered sex offenders...yikes!), as well as concerns about cyber-bullying and more generalized privacy issues (including COPPA compliance in the US), it comes as no surprise that kids' MMOGs are placing a huge emphasis on their "safety" features. In the parents' sections and in the marketing literature, every game that I've reviewed so far has branded itself as a "safe" area for kids to play online. The multiplayer aspect of MMOGs seems to present a particularly significant set of challenges in this regard. The great thing about MMOGs is that you can play with other people--an activity which would seem to necessitate some sort of communication. Otherwise, how do you develop alliances, ask people to join you on a particular quest, coordinate actions and strategies while completing quests, and build your own in-game persona that makes the player/avatar relationship so interesting and complex? How would one ensure that kids will be "safe" in a virtual world where they are consistently coming into contact with anonymous others? So far, the answer in many cases has been to limit in-game communication to bricollage, where players must select from scroll-down menus of predetermined (corporate-approved) chat options in order to communicate with others.

The politics of how and what is included in these options is an issue that I am just now tackling, but in at least one case (Nicktropolis) the emphasis on chat that incorporates brand names relating to Nickelodeon shows and products is astounding. How will these chat options limit the opportunities for play, community building, spontaneity and user-generated experience so common to other MMOGs? Is the trade-off of limiting communication for an enhanced sense of safety (perhaps parental safety) worth it, and how does it transform the kids' experience? How is safety defined in these sites and what is really being prevented? Who determines what chat options are made available (can kids propose new ones? is there any dialog with child-players to ensure that their needs are being met?) and what forms of communication are being prioritized? Does this thwart important opportunities for children's creativity and cultural production (not to mention socializing) that are not offered elsewhere?

Of course, other sites, such as BarbieGirls.com and Club Penguin, have decided that instead of pre-determining what kids (and adult users) are allowed to say in their games/sites, their communications will be subject to intense moderation and monitoring to ensure that their younger users aren't exposed to inappropriate content or communications. While surely more difficult to implement, as a former chatroom moderator, I believe that this approach holds much more democratic and creative potential. There was an interesting debate on the effectiveness of Club Penguin's chat moderation that took place on Heroine Sheik earlier this month (and earlier this spring) through Bonnie's posts and through the reader responses that is worth checking out. According to these players and analysts, Club Penguin has been quite successful in keeping out inappropriate content from children's in-game chat, while still allowing players to communicate with more freedom than could ever be provided by a scroll-down menu.

- Kid-targeted MMOGs seem to forget to include the "G"
This one is just weird...but it seems that some of these companies were so anxious to jump onto the MMOG bandwagon that they sort of forgot to include any actual gameplay or any other kind of play in their MMO-environments. You've already heard me rant about the lack of play opportunities in Nicktopolis, but they aren't the only ones. While GalaXseeds is finally starting to pick up (thank you, Summer Vacation!), my first couple of months there were barren and lonely--limited to too many sessions of Fallin' Pollen (Solo) (one of the only games you can play alone) to count. With more players, come more opportunities to team up for (mandatory) group play, as well as more opportunities to trade, reasons to decorate your pad, etc. The most innovative game that GalaXseeds has incorporated so far is a virtual hide-and-seek/paintball-type advergame, sponsored by Honeycomb cereal! Eek. Anyway, all MMOGs (well, except for WoW I suppose) have population-dependency issues and periods of downtime where the player can't find anything interesting to do. But these games consistently surprise me for how hard it is to actually get into something resembling play. The biggest exception here is Toontown, which is immediately fun and engaging...let's just hope it stays that way.

Not to challenge those of you who have been able to amuse yourselves on these games, or have a different interpretation of the other 'limitations' I've mentioned. In fact, if you do have a different experience, please let me know which areas or features you think I should check out or try again.

Circuits of Cool/Digital Playground Report

I've got a more elaborate post coming up this afternoon, but in the meantime, check out this new report by MTV, Nickelodeon and Microsoft on global kids and technology. The report combines findings from a qualitative/quantitative study that included 18,000 respondents between the ages of 8-14 years and 14-24 years in 16 countries. As per the KidScreen coverage:
Perhaps the most interesting finding is that digital communication vehicles such as IM, email, social networking sites and mobile phones/texting are complementary to, not competitive with, TV. Additionally, the study is full of little info nuggets. For example, the average Chinese young person has 37 online friends he/she has never met, youth in India are most likely to see mobile phones as status symbols; and 33% of UK and US teens say they absolutely cannot live without their game consoles.

Rusak promises more extensive coverage of the report in next month's issue. Until then, here's the Viacom press release, and the MTV press release.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Nickelodeon Goes Casual

Big news from Nickelodeon out of this week's Casual Connect gaming conference in Seattle, involving plans to invest $100 million in the online casual games market over the next two years. According to Gamasutra, the investment is "part of MTV's strategy to secure a leading role in the gaming space -- including casual, console and handheld games, as well as related media." The plan is to spread it out over a number of initiatives, which will include:

- myNOGGIN: An "edugaming" subscription service aimed at preschoolers where, as Kidscreen writes, "toddlers can play educational games and parents can track their progress" (launching Fall 2007)

- New features for Nicktropolis: Including multiplayer games and tournaments (date TBA, but I assume "ongoing")

- Nick Gaming Club: A "kid-friendly" subscription service featuring multiplayer games, CGI avatars and community-building applications (launching in 2008)

- The-NGames.com: (In partnership with AddictingGames) A massive online casual gaming site focused on teen girls.

- Expansions to AddictingGames: Including casual MMOGs and the introduction of AddictingWorlds (and continued partnership with Habbo)

- Neopets will be transformed into Neostudios: Shifting the "focus on developing new virtual world gaming experiences online while continuing to grow and evolve the existing ones." (launch end of 2008)

Gamasutra also reports that Nickelodeon plans to put more emphasis on "user-submitted games" by increasing uploading capabilities and game-making engines. As always, however, the company has its sights firmly fixed on advertising and cross-promotional opportunities:
The company also says that increased Shockwave focus will be placed on the creation of games that will also provide opportunities for prominent integrated advertising. ...Shockwave plans to link itself more closely with family-targeted brands within Nickelodeon Kids and Family Group, like Nick-at-Nite television, to give advertisers the ability to promote their messaging across multiple platforms.

During a keynotes address Cyma Zarghami, the Nickelodeon Kids and Family Group president, was quoted saying, "Particularly in the kids' space, with more than 86% of kids 8 to 14 gaming online, we see great momentum for online casual gaming. This investment will not only benefit our audiences, but also our marketing and distribution partners." After spending yesterday afternoon doing data entry for my content analysis of Nicktropolis, counting the advergame applications and creating an inventory of the number of "chat phrases" containing brand names, the fact that they're planning to use these games for integrated advertising is probably the least surprising thing about this announcement. But the addition of actual games in Nicktropolis will be a relief...as it stands, it still plays like a really boring version of Habbo Hotel, but with way more ads.

Also, check out Izzy's post on this very topic from yesterday--scooped again !)

Monday, July 16, 2007

From Virtual Dolls to Grand Theft Auto

Last week, the game industry was all abuzz about a new study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health that found "no corresponding increase in violent or anti-social behavior" among young teens who played M-rated or violent video games (you can read some of the coverage at The Escapist or GamePolitics.com). Much less coverage was given, however, to the primary purpose of the study, conducted by Cheryl K. Olson et al. (2007), which was to explore gender differences in the game play patterns of young adolescent males and females, with a special emphasis on violent games. Among their key findings:
Of 1254 participants (53% female, 47% male), only 80 reported playing no electronic games in the previous 6 months. Of 1126 children who listed frequently played game titles, almost half (48.8%) played at least one violent (mature-rated) game regularly (67.9% of boys and 29.2% of girls). One third of boys and 10.7% of girls play games nearly every day; only 1 in 20 plays often or always with a parent. Playing M-rated games is positively correlated ( p < .001) with being male, frequent game play, playing with strangers over the Internet, having a game system and computer in one’s bedroom, and using games to manage anger.

Conclusions: Most young adolescent boys and many girls routinely play M-rated games.

Another interesting discovery, (found on p.82): "[T]wo in five boys and one in five girls like to “mod” games, e.g., by downloading new characters, weapons, clothing, or story lines from the Internet."

While gender differences persist, it would seem that they are no longer as marked as they once were (or at least assumed to be). It's worth noting, however, that there are still some noticeable differences in terms of which M-rated and other games female and male players reportedly prefer...an aspect that the study does not really explore. Check out the tables on pp.79-80, where the article provides a comparison between the "five games played most often" by the guys and girls surveyed in the study. What I found most interesting about these lists was the diversity of content and themes (genres) found in the games listed by the female players. While the guys' list was fairly predictable:

1 Grand Theft Auto (M)
2 Madden (football) (E)
3 Halo (M)
4 NBA (E)
5 Tony Hawk (skateboard) (T)
6 NCAA (E)
7 Need for Speed (racing) (E or T)
8 ESPN (E)
9 Medal of Honor (T)
10 Lord of the Rings (T)

The girls' list is much harder to define, esp. in gendered terms:
1 The Sims (T)
2 Grand Theft Auto (M)
3 Super Mario (E)
4 Solitaire (E)
5 Tycoon games (E)
6 Mario games (unspecified) (E)
7 Tony Hawk (skateboard) (T)
8 Dance Dance Revolution (E)
9 Mario Kart (racing) (E)
10 Frogger (E)

I'm also struck by the fact that although violence games and M-rated games are enjoyed by (some) players of both genders, E-rated games dominate in terms of games most frequently played by both girls and boys (if you count Need for Speed as E-rated).

You can access the full article on the journal website by clicking here. Thanks to Jade Reporting for linking to a post by Mighty Pony Girl which brought this to my attention.

Full Reference: Olson, C.K., Kutner, L.A, Warner, D.E., Almerigi, J.B., Baer, L., Nicholi II, A.M., and E.V. Beresin (2007). "Factors Correlated with Violent Video Game Use by Adolescent Boys and Girls", Journal of Adolescent Health 41 (1), pp. 77–83.

BarbieGirls Hits 3 million

According to Scientific American, Mattel's BarbieGirls.com MMOG has become the "fastest-growing virtual world ever", attracting 3 million members within the first 60 days of its launch, and continuing to add new ones at the rate of 50,000 a day. Wowza! And all this before the release of the BarbieGirls MP3 player needed to access the coolest clothes and play areas in this as-yet-still BETA stage MMO. More to come on this, I promise.

Friday, July 13, 2007

My First Computer


Photo Credit: LeapFrog

From David Carnoy over at C/Net News.com, an overview of LeapFrog's new "ClickStart My First Computer" -- a TV-plug-in PC for children aged 3-6:
The $60 system features a "child-friendly" wireless keyboard with nice big buttons, a console and a mouse that converts for right- or left-handed play. The console comes with a few built in games and activities, and you can buy additional software cartridges ($19.99) that plug into the top of the console.

Not surprisingly, there's a friendly green puppy named Scout to guide kids through navigation, mousing, counting, ABCs, phonic skills, simple math, shapes, and colors. Tots can even click on an in-box to get a greeting-card style e-mail, complete with sound for nonreaders.

While the system isn't compatible with standard operating systems or programs (it sounds like you'd be limited to LeapFrog software only), or the Internet for that matter, the system will introduce kids to computing and Internet "concepts". For example:
[W]ord is LeapFrog's developing a game called Ratatouille: Anyone Can Blog. In it, kids learn how to link to baseless rumors or better yet, just make ridiculous stuff up so other people can link to it and send traffic through the roof.

And of course, as with all LeapFrog products, an emphasis is already being placed on licensing initiatives and "edutainment"...Finding Nemo and Dora the Explorer titles will be released later this month concurrent with the system. For the record, though, I should admit that my first computer, the Commodore 64, ALSO plugged into the television -- but the major difference was that the technology was wide open for user appropriation, had I been so inclined. There were also some pretty obvious differences between playing the C64 piano game and watching an episode of My Little Pony or Ghostbusters...a distinction I fear ClickStart users might not grasp quite as readily, particularly with a media synergy that transports their favourite television characters from the television screen to the, well, PC-ized television screen. Other than the transmedia intertextuality and commercialization potential, though, some of the features sound pretty neat..esp. the blogging game, and especially if it also teaches kids lessons about public domain, privacy and intellectual property BEFORE they're set loose on the Internet.

Here's the LeapFrog press release for more details.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The "Harry Potter Effect"

Via Cynopsis: Kids!, a new press release came out today from The Nielsen Company providing a handy run-down of the impact Harry Potter has had on the entertainment industry since his first appearance (which they've dubbed "The Harry Potter Effect"). Here's an excerpt of some of the key stats:
-- Book sales (Nielsen BookScan) - Since 1998, when Nielsen began measuring book sales in the United Kingdom, the six Harry Potter books have sold more than 22.5 million copies in the UK alone. In the United States, the Harry Potter titles published after 2001 have sold more than 27.7 million copies.

-- Box Office sales (Nielsen EDI) - Combined, the first four Harry Potter films have grossed more than $3.5 billion worldwide. The first film, "Harry Potter and The [Philosopher's] Stone," is the fourth all-time highest grossing film worldwide.

-- Advertising (Nielsen Monitor-Plus) - In the U.S., ad spend for all Harry Potter branded merchandise (including books, movies, DVDs and other promotional products) totals $269.1 million from 1998 to date. Outside of the U.S. from 2000 to date, $119.3 million was spent on total advertising for all Harry Potter branded merchandise in Canada, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, South Africa, Switzerland, and the U.K.

-- DVD/Video sales (Nielsen VideoScan) -All three Harry Potter DVDs/Videos - [Philosopher's] Stone, Chamber of Secrets, and Prisoner of Azkaban - debuted at #1 and remained the #1 family film for the first 3 weeks of each release.

-- Internet Traffic (Nielsen//NetRatings) - The Warner Bros. "Harry Potter Order of the Phoenix" Web site drew 446,762 unique visitors in May 2007.

-- Internet Buzz (Nielsen BuzzMetrics) - On blogs, the final book "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," is generating more "buzz" than the latest movie installment, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix."

-- Music sales (Nielsen SoundScan) - The four Harry Potter soundtracks combined have sold more than 1.1 million copies in the U.S. and almost 100,000 copies in Canada since the initial release back in October 2001. There have been a total of 180,000 downloads of individual songs that tied to the four Harry Potter soundtracks.

-- TV ratings (Nielsen Media Research) - Since 2002, the Harry Potter movies have aired on U.S. television a total of 366 times.

-- Moviegoer Profile (Nielsen Cinema) - A recent survey of moviegoers shows 51% of persons age 12+ are aware that the new book is coming out next month. Twenty-eight percent of persons 12+ in the U.S. have read one or more of the previous Harry Potter books, and 15% have read all of the Harry Potter books-to-date.

-- Consumer (ACNielsen) - More than $11.8 million has been spent by U.S. consumers on Harry Potter-licensed trademark cookies, candy and gum products since June 2002.

Back in 2003, Ipsos Reid released a report that "45 per cent of Canadian households have read at least one of the books", which included 19% of Canadian adults (18+). I'm not sure what the stats are for Canadian kids and teens, but I suspect it's through the roof.

For more info about the Canadian market and to read about the global marketing plan for Deathly Hollows (only 10 days to go before the big release) read this article from Marketing Magazine.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Neopians Unite!

Over the weekend, Izzy Neis compiled a bunch of info on an anti-establishment rebellion that is currently rising up amongst tween girl Neopets users concerning the new RMT (real-money trading) "NCMall" and other pay-to-play features. It's a pretty awesome story, which you can read more about by checking out Izzy's July 8th post, as well as some of the links that she's put together, here, here, and here.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Will CRTC Deregulation Affect CAB's Kids Code?

I will be away until July 11th, so there will be no new blog entries on Gamine Expedition until late next week. In the meantime, some food for thought. In May, Canada's new conservative CRTC Chairman Konrad Von Finckenstein announced his plans to deregulate television advertising in Canada and make some pretty drastic changes to the way "conventional television broadcasters" operate. Here are the details from the CRTC news release:
Notably, the Commission has decided to:

* remove restrictions on advertising time limits after gradually increasing the amount of advertising allowed;
* establish August 31, 2011, as the date by which television licensees will only broadcast digital signals;
* require English- and French-language broadcasters to caption for the hearing impaired 100 per cent of their programs over the 18-hour broadcast day, with the exception of advertising and promotions; and
* deny a subscriber fee for the carriage of local conventional television stations on cable and satellite as its necessity has not been demonstrated.

“These changes reflect our approach of developing lighter and more targeted regulation to achieve the objectives of the Broadcasting Act,” said Konrad von Finckenstein, Q.C., Chairman of the CRTC. “Broadcasters will have the flexibility to air more advertising, and Canadians viewers will ultimately decide what is acceptable.”

As of this (2007), the ad limits will increase to 14 minutes per hour during prime time (7 p.m. to 11 p.m). The following year, this will increase to 15 minutes (all day). After that, the sky's the limit, I suppose.

The story initially "broke" in a Playback magazine interview with Von Finckenstein, wherein he was quoted saying he is aiming for a "lighter approach to regulation" that places less of a burden on government and corporations, and that "We must give fuller play to the energy and creativity of market forces..." While the interview also describes the process the CRTC must undergo to revise departmental policy, the CRTC website currently states these changes as fact.

Prof. Paul Boin, professor of Media Studies at the University of Windsor, was quick to respond via Globe and Mail Op-Ed piece, and now through a national campaign/grassroots organization aimed at preventing the CRTC from handing over Canadian airwaves to market forces. Check it out here: Canadians for Democratic Media. Boin wrote a lengthy and very insightful piece about why deregulation is bad for Canada, which included the following excerpts:
By attempting to get our CRTC "out of the business" of regulating advertising time, not only has Von Finkenstein gone against 75 years of broadcasting precedent and well-developed and proven public policy, but it seems as though he hasn't even read our existing Broadcasting Act. Section 5.1 of our act states that the "Commission shall regulate and supervise all aspects of the Canadian broadcasting system." Section 10.1 of our act states that the CRTC shall "make regulations…respecting the character of advertising and the amount of broadcasting time that may be devoted to advertising… respecting the proportion of time that may be devoted to the broadcasting of programs, including advertisements or announcements."

Now, each time a new techno-gadget plays or podcasts some media content we hear the whine of our wealthy broadcasters stating how they are at a regulatory disadvantage when compared to their newer media counterparts. To these whines I respond, "then run all the cheap American programming and advertising you want via your corporate websites, and give us back your publicly owned broadcast frequencies and designated spots on the cable and satellite dial." Canada's private networks have forgotten that the public owns the channels their content is distributed on, and we only allow them to use these channels if they meet their conditions of license. If they, and the CRTC, are no longer interested in meeting these basic conditions (e.g., Canadian content quotas, limited advertising) then return these channels to the public who will then re-allocate them to any number of conscientious media providers who will be more than proud to meet the goals of the broadcasting act – that "the Canadian broadcasting system shall be effectively owned and controlled by Canadians," supply a "public service," while "providing a wide range of programming that reflects Canadian attitudes, opinions, ideas, values and artistic creativity…" - while earning a healthy profit.


In a follow-up article, Playback covered the backlash against Von Finckenstein's announcement, demonstrating the growing lack of support for the CRTC (organizations from ACTRA to the CAB have expressed their disappointment with the new decisions):
Both the CBC and the Directors Guild of Canada say the CRTC is encouraging a freefall of spending on Canadian drama because it didn't firm up support for Canadian content in its new television policy, which, instead, will eliminate limits on ad time by 2009.
[...]
The NDP's heritage critic Charlie Angus (Timmins-James Bay) believes the CRTC isn't acting in the interest of Canadian viewers. "We've already got enough commercials on television. What's in it for the Canadian viewer if they aren't watching Canadian shows," he says. "Airwaves are public. These broadcasters make money because they are operating in a protected environment. Where's the corresponding obligation to invest in Canadian television?"

As always, my mind is on kids' advertising and how massively saturated children's television already is with ads and marketing schemes: from 30-minute commercials to the frequent instances of networks breaking the rules on what can and can't be advertised to kids. The current regulatory system isn't strict enough, and now our conservative government is going to make it nearly impossible to improve things. A big part of having regulation is to protect citizens from imbalances in power--between individuals and corporations, or between media producers/providers and vulnerable groups. Younger children have enough difficulty as it is telling the difference between content and ads--how will they assert their "consumer agency" and set limits on ads during kids' programming with even less support from media policy than they already have. Once again, I suppose the huge responsibility of reigning in the marketplace is being tossed onto the shoulders of parents and families. But perhaps I'm getting ahead of myself (fingers crossed). No mention has been made in any of the literature I've come across if children's television will be exempt or equally effected by this. I've been waiting to find out for sure whether or not the CAB's CRTC-enforced Broadcast Code for Advertising to Children would be impacted before I chimed in, but perhaps while I'm away one of my readers can fill me in. Either way, this is a disturbing development for Canadians, and I encourage you to write to your MP, file a formal CRTC complaint, and otherwise get involved in reversing this and pending decisions to deregulate our public airwaves.

Update: Although I mentioned the children's television issue extensively in my formal CRTC complaint, the form-letter response I got gave me zero answers about whether the kids' code will be affected...leading me to suspect even more now that it will be.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Transformers, More Than Meets The Eye

Watching Saturday morning cartoons a couple of weekends ago, I was surprised at the number of times I saw trailers for summer action hero blockbusters -- Transformers and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer -- as well as ads for related merchandise (especially toys, of course) and promotions. The violent themes and high levels of action featured in the trailers made me wonder (well, ok, doubt) whether they fell within the film industries' various self-regulatory guidelines not to market to kids under the age established by the film's rating. As it turns out, however, my concerns were unfounded -- the BC Film Classification has given both films a PG-rating (apparently, Fantastic Four even got a "G" rating in Quebec)...which is good, considering that the films are based on popular kids' media/toy brands. It got me thinking once again about violent content, ratings, the convoluted and highly politicized way we define what is "appropriate" for kids, and the differences between Canada and the US when it comes to determining all of the above. The old adage goes that Canada is more likely to put stricter regulations on violence than the US, whereas the US is more likely to restrict sexuality than Canada when it comes to film and television. Imagine my surprise when I found out that not only did the MPAA (the US film ratings board) give Transformers a PG-13 rating, but that the same ad strategies that initially piqued my interest (trailers for the film broadcast during children's television time blocks) are currently at the center of a little media controversy south of the border.

What started as a campaign by the CCFC for an FTC investigation into Hasbro and DreamWorks's marketing of Transformers to "preschoolers", has now gained some profile, garnering headlines like "Toys for Toddlers From PG-13 Movie" in the New York Times, and "Transformer Ads Target Children" in Forbes Online. According to the New York Times article:
[T]he movie is packed with so much violence that one of its stars, Shia LaBeouf, has said in interviews that Steven Spielberg, the executive producer, narrowly avoided an R rating. A spokeswoman for the Motion Picture Association of America, which bestows ratings on movies, declined to comment.

While the FTC has stated publicly that it is interested in hearing what the CCFC has to say, it's unclear whether the media attention will have the effect of raising the profile of the campaign and highlight the deficiencies of the film industry's self-regulatory system, or, as Anil Narine points out, simply make kids want to see it even more -- a strategy that is more than familiar in Hollywood. Strategic press leaks about the "realism" of the sex scenes in Mr. & Mrs. Smith simply contributed to the "buzz" about the film and led to a much larger than expected opening weekend (btw, Transformers just made $27.4 million on it's opening day of release). As Anil says, "Controversy is often absorbed into the marketing momentum of certain films."

I've been sitting on this story for a few days, feeling a bit ambivalent about it, for a couple of reasons. Initially, it didn't seem like it was going to get much traction -- according to the FTC, the film industries have been consistently terrible at adhering to their own rules about marketing to children and teens. Since 2000, the FTC has been monitoring the entertainment industries adherence to a fairly disorganized cluster of self-regulatory guidelines when it comes to marketing films to kids, producing an entire series of reports entitled Marketing Violent Entertainment to Children. In their most recent follow-up study, released last April, the FTC had this to say about the film industry:
Although there is no industry-wide standard, several individual movie studios have adopted guidelines restricting advertising on television shows where the under-17 audience is more than 35%. The study found a few examples of R-rated movies and unrated DVD advertisements on television shows where the under-17 audience exceeded 35%, but most television ads were placed on shows that fell under this threshold. Nevertheless, the report notes that a 35% standard still permits advertising on the vast majority of shows most popular with teens.

Considering the large number of "R"-rated films and videogames being promoted to kids left-right-and-center, a PG-13 rated robot smash-and-bash didn't seem like that much of a priority.

The second reason is harder to describe, but has a lot to do with the fact that what we're talking about here is the Transformers!!! The very same Autobots and Decepticons that have intermittently been a staple of kids' (and particularly boys') culture since the 80s. The movie, the series, the spin-offs (I'm looking at YOU, Beast Wars) are based on a kids' toy line, and thus it makes total sense to me that the movie would be promoted to kids (for some questioning of why it might make sense to me in particular, as someone who grew up in the 80s, read Common Sense Media's review).

Furthermore, as Anil also pointed out, the film is rated PG-13, which doesn't mean that kids can't go see it, just that parental guidance is recommended (he then listed the numerous awesome kids/family movies that fall under the PG-13 rating in the US, from Jurassic Park to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire...or all the foreign films that get inexplicable R-ratings, such as La cité des enfants perdus/City of Lost Children, which was rated PG in British Columbia). According to the MPAA, a PG-13 rating indicates:
PARENTS STRONGLY CAUTIONED—Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.

The PG-13 rating is thus a "sterner warning" for parents to be "very careful about the attendance of their under-teenage children", but it does not restrict children from viewing the movie, even unattended. On the other hand, as media scholars, I think we admire and appreciate a group like the CCFC's ongoing efforts to provide the crucial service of media watchdog, in the absence of concerted government-led monitoring and enforcement. As I said, on this one I remain ambivalent, sympathizing with both sides once again.