Lessons with Auntie;Cover feature

12th November 1999 at 00:00
Say PlayStation and an image of couch-potato gamers playing Mortal Kombat springs to mind. So it comes as a surprise to learn that BBC Worldwide, the commercial arm of the BBC, plans to publish a game featuring the Teletubbies for this popular console. So is this an overdue move to capitalise on Tinky Winky's cult status? As always with this hugely successful children's TV series, you need to look beyond the headlines.

The man responsible for throwing the Teletubbies into the world of Grand Theft Auto is Dave Lee, BBC director of multimedia. The commercial logic is obvious. Lee says: "Over 5 million homes have a PlayStation." By next Christmas, he contends, most cutting-edge gamers will have moved on to the next generation of consoles based on powerful personal computer technology with built-in Internet connectivity. Lee is gambling on parents' resistance to dump today's machines. He's hoping older brothers will pass on their first-generation machines to younger siblings. And if BBC Worldwide succeeds, it will have another big-selling spin-off from the series it funded, together with BBC Education, BBC Children and Ragdoll Productions.

There is more than commercial logic to Lee's plan. Play With The Teletubbies was conceived as a way to help the very young make sense of the technological world in which they find themselves. The series' creators famously chose the television as the symbol of this, but Lee knows how quickly the very young start to explore the interactive world of computers and games consoles. "We know from watching two-year-olds using computers how naturally they find their way around," says Lee. "We want to inspire confidence and make that first experience with computer technology a rewarding one."

The BBC is perhaps better positioned than any other software publisher to do this. It has already transferred characters like Noddy, created 50 years ago, into the multimedia world with Noddy Gets Ready For School. And it recently bagged exclusive worldwide rights to develop and publish Noddy And The Birthday Party for Game Boy Color; its UK release is scheduled for spring 2000. Pingu, the plasticene penguin, is another character that has made a successful transfer to CD-Rom. Lee says: "Our approach is that it has to be fun." Load the Pingu disk and play fish tennis with your youngest and you see what he means.

If sales figures are anything to go by, the approach is working. Since its US release in October 1998, Play With The Teletubbies has notched up 300,000 sales, while in the UK 40,000 copies have been bought since its release in September last year, statistics that have bagged it the number one slot in the children's software chart on both sides of the Atlantic and highlight the potential of the USmarket. To boost sales in Latin America and major European and Scandinavian territories, the use of local language and artists give products a home-grown feel.

Like the inventors of Teletubbies, Lee believes in learning through play and the interactive computer screen is a celebration of this. But what's the difference between his putting Noddy or Dipsy into an interactive environment and Beatrix Potter sitting down to create Peter Rabbit? Lee is adamant - it is different and it is educationally worthwhile. He says:

"With an interactive screen the child is involved and makes a contribution to what is a new theme around learning. I'd be worried if I did not believe it was beneficial."

Lee explains that the use of a full screen with very high colour resolution in the BBC's software for the very young is deliberate. "We want children fixed on the screen, as they are when they watch Teletubbies on TV," he says. Using the full screen has practical advantages, too. Most toddlers take hold of the mouse having watched older members of their family click away. This can have disastrous consequences on a typical Windows screen with all its tool bars and icons. By comparison, you are less likely to get lost in a Teletubbies or Noddy program. Using a point-and-click interface will also make it easier for Lee to transfer his titles to the PlayStation; with the keyboard put to one side, he is simply swapping the mouse for the console's control with the advantage of much better graphics from the TV screen thrown in.

This obsession with a point-and-click interface serves less well when it comes to selling software to an older audience. Titles like the music-making Top Of The Pops Mix Factory have come in for criticism - not all children find their interest sustained by drag-and-dropping pre-recorded music samples on to a virtual track mixer. Lee defends the Top Of The Pops disk. He says: "We know from children coming on our stands at exhibitions that they can quickly compose music with it. Parents are very impressed by what their children can do with this title."

But some, especially those with traditional training in music, remain unconvinced. And the most sceptical see the program as an attempt to capitalise on the best known music brand among teenagers.

Lee has been more successful with his recent additions to GCSE Bitesize (although like so many New Media ventures, his division remains a loss-making arm of BBC Worldwide). The exam revision series already comes on TV, in books and on the Web. Now CD-Roms have been added. "It is a very competitive market," Lee admits. "We looked at other products on the market and decided to make our program a B-grade standard when most other products offered to train you to a grade C."

This demanded an enormous step forward in the education content to ensure the depth of the product justified its claim to be superior. As with all the division's titles, the program developers worked alongside BBC Education. Lee says: "A former teacher and OFSTED inspector oversees the education software content of everything we produce."

As well as education input, Lee spends large amounts of money on focus groups and values feedback from customers who fill in the reply cards boxed with all his titles. In fact his biggest launch this Christmas is the title that most customers have asked him for - a CD-Rom version of smART, the BBC's highly popular children's art TV series. With such an overt belief in the interactive world, it can't be long before his work pays commercial dividends.

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