New London - In a kids' show The Day will start airing next month on its website, the merry cast convenes in a clubhouse and bounds through a magical portal. On the other side, another world awaits.
The leap might be an apt metaphor for the company's latest experiment in digital programming.
Having streamed video of "Live Lunch Break," a weekly concert series, for nearly a year, as well as live coverage of political debates, high school basketball and, most notably, last November's New London-Ledyard football "Saturday Morning Showdown," theday.com is trying something different: educational children's fare.
As Gary Farrugia, The Day's publisher, put it, "We're still in the petri dish."
Dave Gellar, The Day's sales development manager, hatched the idea for "Kidsploration" last June after witnessing a "Live Lunch Break" performance by Steve Elci & Friends, a three-person troupe featuring Elci, an acclaimed singer/songwriter, and the husband-and-wife improvisational acting team of Casey and Michele O'Neill.
Weeks later, Gellar caught the act again at Ocean Beach Park in New London, "and the next thing I know, I'm in Gary's (Farrugia) office, pitching it to him," Gellar said. "With 'Kidsploration,' we're targeting 5- to 10-year-olds - but really their parents who are in their 20s to 40s, an audience that's important to The Day and its advertisers."
Early this year, Farrugia informed employees that The Day had signed a multi-year agreement with Elci to produce "Kidsploration," the first season of which will consist of five half-hour episodes this spring and another five in the fall.
The premiere episode will be shown for the first time Sunday during a "red carpet" event at the Garde Arts Center in New London. Members of the Kidsploration Club - more than 500 have signed up so far - their parents and others have been invited.
The show's online debut is set for May 10 on theday.com and a sister website, kidsploration.org.
"We will own, market and air the show," Farrugia said. "It's another experiment, another data point we're putting out there based on the conviction that broadband (Internet) video is about to explode. … With broadband, all you need is a website. …"
Farrugia compared The Day's agreement with Elci to its outsourcing production of the New London-Ledyard football game, which drew on the expertise of television network-level professionals.
"That was the best-quality production we could muster," Farrugia said of "Showdown," which attracted sponsorships and advertising and turned a profit. "Kidsploration" is expected to generate revenue in the same ways, as well as through syndication fees and merchandising tie-ins.
Farrugia sees theday.com positioning itself as southeastern Connecticut's video network, a web-based source of news and entertainment.
New business model?
Inside The Day, some questioned whether children's programming fit with the company's mission. Farrugia believes it does.
If the four pillars of a news organization are to inform, enlighten, provoke and entertain, he said, then you can make the case that "Kidsploration" will do three of the four.
"An educational children's program does explain and enlighten," he said. "It might not provoke, but it should entertain. … What's different here is that we don't produce the content. But that's nothing new. We run content we don't produce now."
He cited The Day's publication of news supplied by The New York Times, The Associated Press and other wire services, as well as comic strips, puzzles and Parade magazine.
Webcasting projects like "Kidsploration" could be part of a new business model for The Day and news outlets like it, Farrugia suggested.
"The whole purpose of this," he said, "is to find additional revenue streams to help underwrite the cost of producing the quality journalism this market has come to expect from us."
Gellar noted The Day has no blueprint to follow in pursuing a project like "Kidsploration," a circumstance that's kept him up at night.
"It's not news, it's not advertising … it's programming," he said.
Whatever it is, it has to hit a certain mark, a certain standard for quality associated with The Day's brand, according to Executive Editor Timothy Dwyer, who's overseeing "Kidsploration" from an editorial perspective. Involvement in a kids' show is a first for Dwyer, whose journalism career spans more than three decades.
"They've invited me to be part of the process," he said, referring to The Day's advertising department.
As an executive producer, his role is to review scripts and to "brainstorm."
"In the end," he said, "it's about storytelling and that's what we do. … Before 'Showdown,' I bet a lot of our customers had doubts about our ability to produce high-quality coverage of a football game. Now, when we go there again, we'll have a track record."
In each episode, the "Kidsploration" cast visits two attractions in the region. At each, Elci and the O'Neills connect with on-site staff members who impart some pertinent wisdom about topics that range from recycling to animal rehabilitation to bullying and sharing. Each episode features original music and kids being kids.
Episodes have been filmed at the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center in Mystic, the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence, Mystic Aquarium, Mystic Seaport, the Submarine Force Museum in Groton, the Mashantucket Pequot Museum & Research Center, The Dinosaur Place at Nature's Art in Oakdale, the Connecticut Science Center in Hartford and the Essex Steam Train & Riverboat.
Mystic Aquarium, an enthusiastic supporter of the project, appears in two of the episodes.
"It seemed like an interesting fit for us," said Andy Wood, vice president of marketing for the Sea Research Foundation, which operates the aquarium. "We target a lot of programming toward children."
The aquarium has a "Kidsploration" kiosk where kids can sign up for club memberships and plans to host a "Kidsploration" summer series of events.
"We're pretty excited to see The Day step up and commit to this, to put their energy into it," Wood said. "It's definitely not something you expect to see a news organization do. But from a consumer behavior perspective, it's where the audience is going. Digital distribution."