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Web innovator helps Sesame Street celebrate 30th

Do you know which Sesame Street character wears bib coveralls?

Hmm. OK, here's a tougher one: Name the year in which Sesame Street made its television debut.

If you answered "Prairie Dawn" and "1969," you're either a Sesame Street veteran from waaaay back, or you're among the many who have been playing Sesame Street trivia at the Web site of the celebrated children's show.

The groundbreaking TV show that brought us Big Bird, Bert & Ernie, and the rest of the gang is marking its 30th anniversary. As part of the celebration, Guy Smiley is hosting an online trivia game developed for Sesame Street by Web innovator PeopleSpace Inc. While the game has been up and running for only a matter of weeks, The Count already is having difficulty keeping a tally of players. In fact, so many Sesame Street fans are playing, PeopleSpace is having to move the game onto a larger server.

Children's Television Workshop, which produces Sesame Street, believes in the value of entertainment as a vehicle for education and as an incentive for participation. That's why CTW turned to PeopleSpace to develop the Sesame Street trivia game.

"The Sesame Street game really gives you an idea of what is happening now in Web marketing," said PeopleSpace president Jack D. Smith. "Web-savvy corporations will look at it and recognize the shape of things to come."

Nearly a half century ago, companies like Texaco ("Texaco Star Theater," featuring Milton Berle), Kraft ("Kraft Television Theatre") and Lincoln-Mercury ("Toast of the Town," which became "The Ed Sullivan Shoe," er, "Show") jumped on the fledgling television entertainment bandwagon. Today, farsighted corporate executives are recognizing the cultural parallels and are scrambling for a head start in offering entertainment at their Web sites. In addition to CTW, the client list for PeopleSpace includes Fox Sports, Service Merchandise, iVillage and others.

"If you're going to sell your products on the Web, you've got to generate traffic to your site. And if your site features some interactive entertainment, preferably a game and chat function, you're halfway home," said Smith.

Smith's company, based in technology-minded Charlottesville, Va., has been making a name for itself in Internet entertainment circles with its custom-designed trivia games and "gamelets" - simple, quick-play action games that require only a minimal download. Both the trivia games and action gamelets are custom designed to tie in with a company's products.

And there are different modes of play. While PeopleSpace's more budget-conscious clients may opt for a single-player game only, many corporate customers go for the more competitive multiplayer versions, where a player can pit his knowledge or skills against (and, not incidentally, chat with) the fellow down the street, across town, or even on another continent. Sesame Street offers both single- and multiplayer options, although it does not offer chat.

"This all seems new to a lot of people now," Smith laughs, "but very soon it will be commonplace. When that happens, any company in a highly competitive industry may find little advantage in owning a Web site unless it can offer potential customers some form of entertainment. And that's our niche."

Even Oscar the Grouch could see that.