For producers of children’s television, the iPad is the device that finally lets them break through the fourth wall in order to directly engage with viewers who can now not only view and respond to the on-screen activity, but also participate in moving the story forward. One company attempting to build a new kind of “iPad TV” business is PlaySquare, whose debut app, launched last summer, is now exiting beta. PlaySquare is moving into full production with new “touchable TV” episodes in store, and many more on the way.
The company was founded by a team of producers and others with experience in children’s TV, including CEO Alex Kay, who previously founded the three-time Emmy-award-winning PBS show WordWorld, as well as exec producer Tina Peel, who has 30+ years in television, including 15 at Sesame Workshop.
As for the app itself, PlaySquare began by repurposing the assets Kay had from WordWorld by adapting them for the iPad, while also introducing new forms of engagement where the kids have to complete tasks and play games, as they explore the “world” and the characters in it. Now the company is moving this app out of its beta-testing period and launching new episodes that will be available for in-app purchase as it attempts to turn touchable TV into a revenue-generating business.
The progress follows a partnership and investment from NYC-based production company Curious Pictures. Curious is known for popular TV shows like Disney’s “Little Einsteins,” Nick Jr.’s “Team Umizoomi” and HBO’s “A Little Curious,” among others. They’ve committed to fund up to $1.5 million over the course of the next two years, we were told earlier this year, and have a stake in the company.
Says Kay, PlaySquare has been busy building its pipeline of new content over the course of 2013 and is now in the process of submitting its upgraded apps to Apple and awaiting their approval. The new app is expected to hit as early as Monday, though generally speaking, it could arrive anywhere in mid-October or even sooner, depending on Apple’s review process.
The original, beta app was a single episode experience, but it’s getting a revamp that makes it a part of the new PlaySquare TV platform. The app will have a different look-and-feel and navigational elements, explains Kay. Each app will still be its own app, but will connect to all the others through tappable links that will directly launch the other content parents have purchased. Along with the original app’s makeover, the second episode called “Pirate Ship” is also on its way this month. In November, “Superhero Sheep” will launch, too, soon to be followed by a holiday episode in December. All these will continue to take place in “WordWorld” and will be $2.99 apiece.
“It’s the same model. We’re taking the best episodes [of the WordWorld TV show] and interspersing them with activities so the child can help move it along,” explains Kay. “We’re essentially opening up these episodes – it’s like going from 2D and 3D, in a way.”
Kay tells us the original app was downloaded a number of times – in the low six figures, but the exact amount is not being disclosed on the record because the company has not yet focused on user acquisition or marketing directly to consumers.
That being said, PlaySquare is now up to 3.4 million sessions, representing 22 million minutes of use. These numbers indicate that while its user base is still somewhat small, they’re engaged. (Anecdotally, we see the same thing here in our household. Though the app is now over a year old, it continues to be launched regularly to be played again many times over.)
“The numbers have been steady,” Kay adds. From around May to this summer, downloads doubled. “We haven’t seen a peak in the beginning then a dropoff, and we’re hopeful that as we have more episodes and tell parents what’s available in the app, that’s going to be a key part of our marketing program.”
Meanwhile, as the WordWorld-based episodes move into production, with new releases at a rate of around one per month, the company is also in discussions with other kids’ television property owners – some, thanks to its partnership with Curious, which also provides its art and animation services (a 100-person team) to PlaySquare as a part of their investment.
Later this month, PlaySquare will announce a deal has been closed on a new property which is in development for TV. The show will arrive on television, and will then be followed by PlaySquare’s touchable TV experience involving royalties paid back to the owner – a model it plans to replicate for others going forward as well. “Their expertise is in television,” Kay says of the new deal, and why the TV producers don’t want to take on an app’s creation themselves. “These things cost money to develop, and time. It makes sense for them to use a third-party and develop it for nothing,” he explains.
“You can’t have a business that makes just one app.”
Most importantly, Kay believes that the multi-episode/multi-app model is the one that successful children’s app makers have to adopt. It’s what others in the space, including Toca Boca, Duck Duck Moose, and other larger brands, do.
“You can’t have a business that makes just one app, or even a business that makes a lot of disparate apps,” says Kay. “We’re making a series of content, where if someone likes WordWorld, hopefully they’ll buy all 10 to 15 episodes. Then when we release another property, hopefully they’ll give that a shot, too.”
The current PlaySquare app, which was free during its beta, is gone from the App Store in advance of the launch. However, interested parents can sign up here to receive an email alerting them to its re-release expected in mid-October.