January 18, 2005

ARTICLES / NEWS: The news is good? They must be kidding

By Doreen Carvajal International Herald Tribune
Monday, January 17, 2005

PARIS A new anchor on the nightly news made his debut this month, delivering headlines with the wheezy voice of a wind-up robot and a nose shaped like a hot air balloon.

The beady-eyed cartoon hero Quotillon is not a standard broadcast "hunk." But he is the star nonetheless of his own 10-minute daily news show for children, one of the first of its kind distributed over the Internet as a Webcast.

The star and his news show, "Mon Quotidien TV," or "My TV Daily," are the creation of Play Bac Presse, a French company that is evolving into an unlikely children's media conglomerate on both sides of the Atlantic.

At their 17th-century headquarters on a small Paris street, top executives struggle to think like children and make money like adults. Internet television is Play Bac's latest offering, but it also presides over four daily newspapers in France for children and young teenagers, and it dreamed up the popular quiz cards called Incollables in France, or Brainquest in the United States, where they are distributed by New York-based Workman Publishing.

Now the company is trying to play pied piper with newspaper executives in the United States, Italy, France and Britain. It is involved in final negotiations to test a children's daily newspaper in the United States with The Miami Herald this year. And Play Bac is in discussions with various European newspapers, including the International Herald Tribune, to add franchised inserts for children or older teen-agers, like its prototype, FotoNews, a weekly section of photographs and brief stories.

Attracting young readers is an issue that resonates in many countries. In France, for one, the national press and government authorities have been engaging lately in a gloomy debate about long-term circulation declines and strategies to woo younger subscribers.

Play Bac, with annual revenue of about ?15 million, or $19.6 million, 75 employees and a combined daily circulation of almost 200,000, is part of a small, rarefied group of daily newspaper publishers in Asia and Europe that target children.

The company is "a turnkey" to the children's market, said Elissa Vanaver, The Miami Herald's vice president for human resources, who is involved in negotiations for a U.S. version.

"What is really unique is that the kids get a print newspaper that belongs to them every day," she said. "Kids are online all the time. They read a lot. What they're not doing is associating that reading with a daily, live news product. And this creates that connection." The daily Internet news show is part of Play Bac's expansion, which also included the September opening of a book publishing branch in New York.

So far the new Internet show is more successful at drawing children than advertisers. With the format in its infancy, advertisers are hanging back to see how Internet television evolves, according to Play Bac. On the print side, the company is profitable, relying for revenue largely on a subscription base, which costs about ?8 a month.

More than 6,500 subscribers have registered for the new show since its debut on Jan. 5, the 10th anniversary of Play Bac's first newspaper for children, at a rate of about 500 a day, according to Fran├žois Dufour, one of Play Bac's three founders and its editor in chief. What they get is the anchor man, Quotillon, sitting soberly at his news desk with a giant cartoon globe behind him, introducing an eclectic mix of news from animal tales to features on China's seasonal marriage boom. Although the show is in French, the company has received requests for subtitles from U.S. viewers, who have discovered the show on the Web site monquotidien.tv.

Dufour's ambition is to sign up 100,000 viewers by the end of the year. That may be perfectly achievable, given the rising number of high-speed Internet subscriptions across Europe.

The Norwegian station TV2 is charging access for its online programming. Dutch computer users are watching sports matches online, and the Dutch government is pressing three public broadcasting channels to distribute programs live over the Internet.

Dufour said that the company had decided to branch out because the Internet television format allows children to see and hear their own news.

"The celebrated 8 o'clock TV news programs are too long, and the stories are delivered and chosen for adults," he said. Worst of all, he said, most television news is "boring for a kid."

The show's creator, Julien Vonthron, spends about five hours a day preparing the show, selecting news footage from television partners like France 2, one of the main French TV channels.

To reach younger viewers, Vonthron ponders the interests of his own nephews, aged 8 to 13. Thus, endangered jaguars or rescued storks tend to be show stoppers, and violent images are cast aside.

"I try not to show images of victims that are too close up," he said, "I did show a car with a tree on it. But we don't see blood. Still, it shows the reality that things can happen."

Play Bac regularly submits its work to kiddy critiques. It asks young readers to rate newspaper stories on its Web sites, and the results are circulated within the company, with lists of top 10 favorites and flops.

"A sure flop is every time we talk about a painting exhibition, so we have decided to give up," Dufour said. "But what tends to flop also is when we do a cover story about sports or movies or video games or music. Those are their passions, but they don't have the same passion. It's too specific. With soccer, we lose all the girls, we lose some boys. Movies, apart from Harry Potter, will be a flop."

Stories also get daily scrutiny from an educator who works part time after school to see if the news stories meet another test: Are they comprehensible to a child?

Bernard Paret is a school director and former teacher who has been working for Mon Quotidien since its birth 10 years ago. For years, he used the newspapers in his classes - a market that is an important part of the company's subscription base. More than 15 percent of Play Bac's circulation for its four newspapers comes from student subscriptions, and copies are mailed to homes at rates heavily discounted by the French government, from 20 cents to 5 cents.

The speed of 24-hour mail delivery in a country like France can't be matched in the more sprawling United States. So Play Bac has been working with The Associated Press in New York to persuade newspapers to produce daily children's inserts from a joint operation.

Jim Kennedy, the vice president for AP's strategic planning, said the chief hurdle for many newspapers was how to deliver a children's section to subscribers who specifically want it - not every household has children. "It's a problem for newspapers," he said.

Kennedy also said that, while people say they are receptive to the idea in theory, "when you ask them to pay, they'll cancel their subscription."

But Paret, the Paris school director, insists that the investment delivers results. The payoffs are former students, now in their 20s, who tell him that Mon Quotidien gave them a reading habit for life.

SOURCE: http://www.iht.com/articles/2005/01/16/business/kids17.html
Play Bac Press WEBSITE - YOU CAN WATCH THE LATEST SHOW HERE ONLINE: http://www.playbac.com/tv
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