There was a time not too long ago when it was unusual for a
cable network to have a Web site, let alone ongoing sites or areas developed in
conjunction with specific programs.
Now, Web-site gurus often hear from their cable
counterparts when programs are in the early planning stages, and canny consumers head to
sites looking for more information about their favorite shows.
For some shows, a schedule, synopses and cast bios are all
that surfers will find. But many show-related Web sites now offer transcripts, video
clips, streaming audio or video, games, background material, interviews, glimpses behind
the scenes and much more.
The most elaborate site ever produced for a specific cable
program may be that for Cable News
Network's Cold War, which has been in production almost as long as the
series has. The complex site is being updated constantly through the life of the series,
and it will remain live after the series' end.
"Part of the value of a Web site is that it's there
for the taking a year from now if someone wants to look up something," said Jeff
Garrard, executive editor for CNN Interactive. "We think that we've got the
Not every show warrants definitive treatment. At the very
least, though, every CNN show gets a promo page with a schedule, bios and transcript
links. Anything more is decided on a case-by-case basis.
CNN's Talkback Live, with its interactive premise,
requires a strong Web presence. Elements include a chat room during the show, a quick-vote
feature that offers viewers a say in the day's topic, video highlights, message boards and
a favorite CNN tool: a 360-degree IPIX (a browser plug-in) view of the set in CNN Tower in
"When you make a show page, you have some sort of
additional value online. That's a lot of work and upkeep," Garrard explained.
"You make a list of the ones that you think are the most important, and you start
working your way down."
On the entertainment side, not every show lends itself as
well to intricate Web programming as USA Network's The Net or Showtime's Stargate
SG-1. Science fiction as a genre is a natural for the Web, as a visit to Sci-Fi
Channel's Web site scifi.com, or
"The Dominion" proves.
As vice president of USA Networks Inc.'s Enterprises
division, Ellen Kaye oversees new-media efforts for USA Network and Sci-Fi, and she knows
that the promo treatment is enough for many shows.
"I think that it really depends on what the show is.
Some obviously lend themselves better," Kaye said. "We don't like to just
repurpose content: We produce for the medium."
At Sci-Fi's site, viewers of Sliders can log on
after the show airs for an "Online Slide" a five-minute Web experience
linked to elements from that night's episode.
Activities in the Online Slide range from conducting a job
interview with a character, to a newscast, to a simulation of the virtual-reality goggles
used in one episode. Online Slides are archived for newcomers to discover and for Sliders
regulars to relive.
Two other popular areas involve partnerships with the
studios that produce and own the series. Columbia TriStar wanted to build the site for The
Net, and it wanted USA to promote the site. Kaye compromised by building a bridge page
that links to the full site.
On The Dominion, the Star Trek area which
includes live chat during the twice-daily broadcasts is being produced in
conjunction with Paramount Pictures, which already had a strong Star Trek Web
"Instead of re-creating, we paired with them. It makes
it a lot easier, especially with Star Trek, which historically has been a difficult
property," Kaye said.
The partnership helps Sci-Fi to avoid the licensing
problems that otherwise might have cropped up. The cross-promotion also ensures traffic
from the Paramount site.
Added Kaye, "I think that everybody in television has
seen that they can move an audience from TV to the Web and, I suppose, back again. If you
reference something in the show particularly when you're talking about a cable
audience, which tends to be more affluent and have more access to computers you
should expect to see a jump to the Web."
Sports shows also work well with online components. Home Box Office and Showtime
each have in-depth boxing areas that take advantage of the Web's capabilities. HBO viewers
can chat in real time during a bout, while visitors to Showtime's site can score fights as
they are happening.
HBO also offers a companion site for its weekly Inside
the NFL series, where viewers can compare their picks with those of the commentators,
listen to clips and diagram their own versions of important plays, among other activities.
"We really like the notion of cross-platform
content," said Jeff Morris, senior vice president of new media and technology for
Showtime Networks Inc. "We want very much to use the Web as a back channel to the
network and a direct feedback loop."
At HBO, one of the questions that vice president of
interactive ventures Kevin Dowdell has to answer on a regular basis is how much to support
an HBO original movie versus a 13-week series.
"Because the series has more shelf life and almost a
cult following, we tend to invest more in series," Dowdell said.
The most notable exception to that policy so far was From
the Earth to the Moon, HBO's Emmy Award-winning miniseries, which spanned six weeks
and totaled 12 hours of programming.
"It's not just the fact that it had a six-week run,
but the fact that many of the episodes were dependent on each other ... and it was also
the kind of series that piqued people's interest in the subject matter," Dowdell
HBO began work on the Web site for Earth to the Moon
six or seven months before the miniseries debuted. The result was an area that made use of
outtakes, provided context for episodes seen out of order or missed and gave the viewer
the chance to explore that newly piqued interest in space.
It's also an example of the way that network programmers
are taking an interest in Web production where they recognize the need for sophisticated
HBO plans to keep the Earth to the Moon area live
for as long as the space series continues to run on various HBO channels.
Another smaller-scale but very popular example of HBO's Web
content is The Chris Rock Show an area that surprised Dowdell by sustaining
most of its traffic between seasons. Rock's fans post messages and watch video highlights.
The entry page carries a warning about "adult content."
"We are extremely careful about that," Dowdell
said. "Obviously, we're HBO, and one of the benefits of being HBO is that there are
fewer constraints for our talent on-air. If we sanitize it too much, it's not very
interesting. If we push the envelope too much, it's problematic for the kids."
At Showtime, Morris balances several criteria before
deciding to allocate resources to a Web area for a specific program.
"First, we look at the priorities associated with a
product, as determined by our programming group and our marketing group. Then, we
cross-reference that by a sense of the demographics of the Web, and for the ability of the
Web to kind of do it justice," Morris said.
A&E Television Networks,
which has five Web sites, has created two models for its sites: one devoted to a
particular program with a chat area, and the other genre- or topic-related, explained Todd
Tarpley, A&E's director of new media.
"More than one-half of our traffic on the latter three
doesn't come from the TV: It comes from people seeking information about history, people
or mysteries," he said.
"'This Date in History' is the most popular feature on
historychannel.com, and it has nothing to do with the TV network," Tarpley
added. "If you can get somebody to come into This Date in History, while they're
there, they'll see promotion for a new show coming up, or maybe buy a History Channel
But Tarpley and his staff also design for and around
specific programs. Aande.com area devoted to Bill Kurtis and his documentaries was
scheduled to goonline last week.
Viewers will be able to watch a show, then visit the Web
site for a discussion based on that night's topic, order the video, or check on upcoming
shows. It's not elaborate -- a plus for the 28.8-baud modem set -- but it is designed
specifically to create a sense of community and interaction for Kurtis' viewers. Said
Tarpley, "If there's an investigative report on someone who's on death row, you tell
us if the death penalty should be outlawed. For the first time, [Kurtis'] viewers will now
be able to talk to each other online. This creates a community on the A&E site who
watch A&E; there's never been a way to get people in one place before. The benefit's
"This is one of the things that the Internet does
very, very well, and that TV is not able to do," Tarpley said.