After 10 months in the making, America Online is set to launch a children’s version of its service Monday, featuring a host of new welcome screens, a daily Internet radio show for kids, original online shows, a new Batman comic strip and a revamped Internet presence for teen and tween phenoms Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen.
DUBBED KOL, or Kids Online, the service naturally borrows from a host of child-friendly AOL Time Warner brands in its stable, including Looney Tunes, DC Comics, Sports Illustrated for Kids and Time for Kids. In fact, the only content coming from outside the parent company are the Olsen twins, though alliances with other children’s brands are expected to be formed later, said Malcolm Bird, the kids and teens senior vp at AOL.
The KOL service, designed for 6- to 12-year-olds, is free and comes with AOL 9.0 Optimized, the newest version of AOL.
Bird, who has worked at Hanna Barbera and Nickelodeon, was brought on board to create KOL, whereas before, AOL offered only its less ambitious Kids Only Channel.
“This is the first true AOL service for kids,” Bird said. “We know from our members that having a safe, robust kid environment is important to them.”
And customer retention is also important. AOL lost 840,000 dial-up subscribers during its second quarter. It’s no secret that the No. 1 online service has been beefing up its broadband offerings so that its dial-up customers have a place to go when seeking faster Internet service. Therefore, Bird said, KOL was created with broadband users in mind.
Some of the rich-media highlights include KOL radio, a weekday four-hour online radio program hosted by United Kingdom radio and TV personality Rick Adams, and two new animated online series introducing entirely new characters. First up is “Princess Natasha.”
“She’s a student, a spy, but always a princess,” Bird said. “And she moves to Illinois.” Kids get one 10-minute episode per week for 10 weeks before the next series, “Kung Fu Academy,” is introduced.
Naturally, Bird expresses an interest to move those properties into television. “It will be interesting to see how popular they become,” he said.
Kids Online also features areas for homework help, rating new toys, viewing trailers of appropriate upcoming movies, an interactive storybook and five separate welcome screens and navigation themes: space, ocean, jungle, style and techno.
“They’re very cool,” Bird said.
PARENTAL CONTROLS And parents can control where their children’s e-mail and instant messages come from, restrict the Web sites they may visit and even specify the exact hours their kids may surf. E-mail reports of what the kids have been up to online are also available. And launching simultaneously is AOL Jr., designed for children as young as 2.
The KOL service also introduces the concept of “worlds” like the Cartoon Network World, featuring online just about anything having to do with characters populating a particular AOL TW television property. The Olsen twins, in conjunction with their Dualstar Entertainment Group, have created Mary-kateandashley World, an exclusive edition of the pair’s regular Web site, which boasted 339,000 unique visitors last month, according to Nielsen/NetRatings. Insiders said Dualstar is spending about $150,000 per year in improvements to ensure that the “world” is significantly different from the dot-com.
About one-third of the households that subscribe to AOL have children ages 2-12 living in them, the company said. And according to Nielsen//NetRatings, 8.98 percent of U.S. Internet surfers last month were ages 2-11, with each surfer spending nearly seven hours and 46 minutes online that month.
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