CartoonNetwork.com & AdultSwim.com Sibling Websites succeed through simplicity
At first glance, CartoonNetwork.
CNN and Cartoon Network
That's no coincidence. Like CNN, Cartoon Network is operated by Turner Broadcasting System in Atlanta, now part of Time Warner. "It's not a mystery that we started out in news and the next thing we tried to do was cartoons," says Art Roche, creative director for Cartoon Network New Media-the group responsible for the care and feeding of the network's North American website. News and cartoons are both universal, he says, even though the audiences come from opposite ends of the spectrum.
Launched in 1992, Cartoon Network plays in some 88 million American households and 160 countries. The network claims the world's largest cartoon library and is where many American kids saw their first anime. In the early days, the network relied strictly on acquired content, including an early purchase of the Hanna-Barbera library. Now, it produces about 40 percent of its nightly programming at its Cartoon Network Studios in Burbank, California-home of Warner Bros and Disney.
Network executives eventually took notice the obvious: its audience goes to bed early each night. So in 2001, the Cartoon Network launched in North America what has amounted to a sister network that shares the same channel but airs during hours that only teenagers and programmers keep. Adult Swim (the name refers the times a public pool is restricted to adults) begins at 11PM and goes all night with some of the most bravely eccentric programming on American television.
Roche and his colleagues on CartoonNetwork.
"It's actually pretty quiet over here," says Roche. The team works in a room of about 60 by 60 feet "with lots of cubicles and a ton of toys." There are plastic action figures covering desks. Roche describes it as a toy store with cubicles. "We bring kids through here and they walk through with their mouths open.
Roche's group consists of roughly 30 designers and producers, 10 programmers and HTML developers, plus six managers. They include a programmer with a degree in artificial intelligence, a writer with a journalism degree from Northwestern University in Chicago, and people with traditional design and art degrees. For people with these skills, Cartoon Network can be one of those hard-to-find careers where you actually get paid to do what you love-and the move from more mundane work can be sudden. "Four months ago, one of our writers was working in a jewelry store," Roche says. He himself holds a fine arts degree in drawing and painting from the University of Georgia. "As a group we tend to be nerdy in various ways. We have people who have done masters theses on comic books. There are a lot people that play games all the time," including console and massively multiplayer games." It's mostly guys, with a sprinkling of women "We hand pick people and everybody here is incredibly talented and really knows the brand. They love cartoons."
Cartoon Network maintains multiple websites for the different territories it plays in, each of them operating independently, though borrowing from each other. "Cartoons, it turns out, are very easy to export because they are very easy to re-dub," says Roche. "Lip syncing is not nearly as difficult to do for Yogi Bear as for a real person. Cartoons thus travel easily and Turner realized that very early on. Plus there is a universal appeal to cartoons. All kids like them around the world." Territories include America, Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Chile, France, India, Japan, Latin America, Mexico, The Netherlands, the Nordic countries, and the United Kingdom. From the North American site, you can click over to any of these. The Japanese website even has an English translation, "just like home!" with the promise that "Western programming is available in both English and Japanese."
These separate websites, in turn, are managed by territorial groups. So, for example, the same team that provides the Japanese website also works on the one serving India. A tour around Cartoon Network's international sites shows much localization. But tastes do differ. "You might watch Felix the Cat down in South America while we don't have that here. We want each territory to have a local flavor, so that each territory knows its audience well enough to meet local needs." Click on the Latin America site and you get a choice between Spanish, Portuguese, and English with further divisions for Argentina, Chile, Mexico, Venezuela, and Brazil. The Japanese and American websites are finely detailed compared with the spare design of the European versions. Ideas can originate anywhere. The American group is currently adopting games that were originally made for cellphones in the United Kingdom and has borrowed other mobile properties from Japan.
Gearing For Kids
The challenge, says Roche, is that every click has to deliver an experience. "We want them always to get content in exchange for a click. If we put up a full picture we know they are going to click on it, and we want to make sure that the result meets their expectations. If you click on our website long enough, you begin to understand intuitively how it works. Sometimes I'm going to get a game, sometimes I'm going to get a cartoon clip, but I'm always going to get something. I'm not just going to get a text page. And we don't have four buttons in a row that are linked to something and a fifth that is not. We try not to break any of those rules."
Kids are also less tolerant of stagnant content, on air and on the Web, so that programming decisions are made weekly. "We still have an up front 'season'where we announce our new shows, but our new shows tend to roll in on an ongoing basis," Roche says. "New episodes of any given show will premiere on the network in bursts, but not all in the fall, or twice a year."
The website gets refreshed just as frequently. Roche says that the modularity of the website makes updates easy. "We've built it on a grid, which makes it easy to swap out graphics," Roche says. Many of the images on CartoonNetwork.
Many of the site's 30 to 40 games that debut each year are developed by an in-house team that produces around six games a year exclusively for the website. The rest come from some a few outside vendors. All are developed using Macromedia Flash and Director. Indeed, Flash has become the new medium for producing low cost cartoons, particularly on Adult Swim, where an entire show may be produced on the desktop. "There's no room full of animators. These are just desktop-produced shows you are seeing on Adult Swim," says Roche. "That's why the creators are more fearless. They are not risk averse over there. I think the viewership of Adult Swim is used to seeing content like that. They would rather have the innovative quirkiness of Adult Swim than really polished animation."
Adult Swim premiered in September 2001, originally twice a week, and includes a combination of anime and other acquisitions, and original series. These include Aquatine Hunger Force, ("human sized food products live together in a rental house in New Jersey"); Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law ("token superhero" lawyer working on cartoon litigations); The Ventura Bros.: Hank and Dean Venture, (two brothers and their bodyguard traveling the universe "from space stations to the Bermuda Triangle and the slums of Tijuana"). The show's anime includes InuYasha, Cowboys BeBop, The Big O, Wolf's Rain, Witch Hunter Robin and Trigun.
While the Cartoon Network's offices are covered in toys, "we are covered with kookie thrift store knick knacks and all manner of needlepoint and strange velvet paintings," says Chip Duffey, creative director of Adult Swim New Media. "I have a vast collection of plastic farm animals." Unlike Roche, Duffey does not have a degree in art. "I think it's an advantage," he says. "With the exception of the anime, Adult Swim has never been about how gorgeous our animation is." The Website follows suit, he says, "providing people with the behind-the-scenes information about the shows they love."
Talk To Viewers
The other big difference, of course, is the audience-which, because of their age and experience, are among the more sophisticated browsers on the Web. Their tastes are not mainstream. Adult Swim's individualistic quirkiness has led to a website that doesn't try to explain itself. The home page has a set of streaming media links, a schedule, a message board, some games, an online shop, and the aforementioned Williams Street webcam, streaming videos and stills. "Adult Swim is a quirky, specific brand and the people who identify with it tend to become zealots really quickly," says Duffey. "But they also feel alone within their circle of friends or school or community. For me, the website is about providing a place to bring them all together. It's a place where you can meet other people like you. We talk directly to our viewers through the 'bumps.'"
Ah, the bumps. They are brief breaks, and in a radical departure from conventional television programming, completely silent. Each one features white text on a black background. Some quietly promote future programming, sometimes even on a rival network. ("They need the ratings.") Some read like absurdist fortune cookies. All are signed: "(adult swim)" AdultSwim.
And then there's the webcam, the "family" stills, and the streaming videos, all of which help erase the usual barrier between a network and its audience. One image shows two staffers at the Tokyo Anime Fair-on the Anpanman Ride. There's a streaming link showing a chair race (think swivel chairs on rollers) down the much-featured Adult Swim hallway. Click the first thumbnail and you see a false start; click the next one and you see the completed race. The "bump": "You know how sometimes you start something and then something happens and you have to stop and start over again? This is one of those times."
Other Websites could learn something from this all this. Web design doesn't have to be fancy, pretentious, intricate or dazzling. To use the American term, it does not have to be "eye candy." It just needs to be inviting.
Sidebar: Managing content under Flash
Cartoon Network's websites change quickly and get a high number of hits. Accordingly, the group has, wherever possible, kept things as simple as possible, beginning with the static HTML pages the group prefers over dynamic pages, built on-the-fly from a database. "Static pages are easier on the servers and more efficient than dynamic pages," says Chris Waldron, director of technology for Cartoon Network New Media. He says that, in the early days, the group simply used hand-coded HTML. "That was originally how we did it when we were just making Web pages consisting of graphics, text, and little else." Now, much of the Adult Swim site uses Macromedia Flash because most of the audience is equipped to view it. Thus Flash has become a universal medium, used not only to create much of the look of the Website, but some of the on-air cartoon programming, as well.
But a largely Flash-based Website created a challenge for the technical crew: how to make the site easy to update without having to bring in a Flash developer for every change. The answer, in part: use XML to control the Flash output. "For example, the upper left of the home page has text cycling through," says Waldron. "That's a basic Flash animation that we programmed. The writers can create text to say whatever they want to say, and change it as quickly and often as they want." Behind the scenes, the publishing tools are manipulating an XML configuration file that controls the Flash display. But automating graphics output is tougher. "There's not too many ways to adopt the graphics to a template," Waldron says. An artist will create something, a Web designer will approve and integrate it onto a page "then pass it on to us and we deploy it. For us, it's still a fairly manual process."
Waldron says that the emphasis on Flash and graphics made it difficult to shop for a content management system. "When we were looking back in 2000, none of the systems made sense to us because we were very graphically heavy. Most of the content management systems are geared towards text-based sites. We did finally decide on a CMS, Interwoven, we focused more on version control and deployment efficiencies, and less for maintaining templates."