TNT’s Multi-Platform Experiment

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Two days before Turner Network Television ran the final episode of its limited series The Grid, which focused on a terrorist attack via ship, the headlines blared reports about maritime mistakes that could enable such assaults.

A week earlier, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft issued a targeted Code Orange alert — another timely, uncomfortable parallel to The Grid’s art-imitates-life storyline.

Aside from its impeccable and disturbing pertinence, The Grid presents a template for made-for-DVR and VOD programming. The six-hour series is also a model for multiple media opportunities across the digital landscape.

THUMB ON DVR

The ideal way to watch the shows is with a thumb on the replay button of a digital-video-recorder’s remote control — facilitating backward skips to review on-screen text reminders about the international venues and to identify characters in the vast cast that populates the intricate plot.

DVR enrichment is not the only digital opportunity for this fast-paced program. The Web site associated with The Grid features an original video game, created by parent Turner Broadcasting System Inc.’s in-house staff.

And the series’ overall length (about 4.5 hours, after trimming out commercials, weekly recaps and the credits) is ideal for a two-disc DVD special edition.

Indeed, the DVD package — with behind-the-scenes production material, out-takes and interviews — is due early next year, a timetable to be coordinated with TNT’s plans to repeat the series in early 2005.

The value of viewer control — via DVR, DVD or VOD — stems from The Grid’s breakneck speed and extensive cast.

'DELIBERATELY FAST’

“The show tries to move at a quick pace,” said Dave Madden, executive vice president of scripted programming at Fox Television Studios, which produced the series. “It does reward repeated viewing.”

TNT senior vice president of original programming Michael Wright agreed, and confirmed that the production was “deliberately fast.”

“Some might say it was too fast,” Wright adds. “It is a very dense story, and there are a lot of characters to follow.

“It is a wonderfully repeatable show. Repeatability is a big part of our decision-making process.”

Wright also expects that “many who saw it the first time will check back to see it again and pick up” additional elements of the story and character development.

Fox TV’s Madden emphasizes that The Grid “is not your typical linear television show.”

“There’s a lot of plot to track,” he acknowledged, and the “opportunity to go back to sample” previous scenes adds to the viewing experience.

The Grid’s complex, intertwined scenarios involving Middle Eastern terrorists, United Kingdom and U.S. law-enforcement authorities and political operatives screams for instant replays and freeze-frames — which a DVR (or VOD) can deliver.

The plot’s rapid jumps from Egypt to Washington to London to Saudi Arabia to Detroit to Nigeria often demand instant recall, usually referencing a previous episode.

LOTS OF TEXT

Frequent on-screen text (in a stylized computer font) identifies characters and locations. But these fleeting references speed past so quickly that the DVR or a future VOD freeze-frame feature can add immensely to viewers’ comprehension of what’s going to happen next.

The Grid, a $24-million project presented in HDTV format on TNT, will air on BBC2 in the United Kingdom starting later this month. The show earned widespread critical acclaim preceding its TNT run in late July and early August. Those reviews may have contributed to its relatively good ratings for the series’ run on four consecutive Monday nights. The coverage rating was 2.8, equivalent to 3.2 million viewers in 2.4 million households.

Audiences skewed up-scale and older, with a significant majority of male viewers in all age groups. For example, in the 25-to-54 category, male viewers (796,000) outnumbered females (704,000).

Madden said the series “appeals to an older, more affluent … more educated audience.”

'TERROR TRACKER’

Recognizing that such an audience also plays video games, TNT created “Terror Tracker,” an original online game available on the network’s Web site. The game also provides back-story information about the show.

The role-playing game — with a pulsing percussion background — casts the participant as the leader of a counterterrorism team. Working against a clock, players must find and destroy the assets of four terror cells before attacks can be launched.

TNT vice president of entertainment marketing Tom Carr said the network’s own Web staff developed and programmed the game in about four months.

“Online, there is a different kind of user,” he said.

TNT created the game to “reinforce the show with online users, who are more tech-savvy and more Web-savvy … and a little younger,” Carr said. “It also gave us a great tool when we were sending out viral e-mail blasts to get attention to the show itself.”

The e-mail campaign was run through America Online (TNT’s corporate cousin within Time Warner Inc.) and other partners. “It gave [viewers] something to click through to enhance the value.”

In finest cross-platform motif, the entire Grid Web site was coordinated with the TV show. For example, during each televised episode, TNT inserted commercials to steer viewers to the Web site; those messages ran adjacent to ads for Dodge and Goodyear, both of which also sponsored the site.

MAGNUM SWEEPSTAKES

The ad package included a Dodge Magnum sweepstakes — the kind of promotion that DVR users consider skip-proof.

The “Terror Tracker” game attracted 10,000 players during the first week of the show. The game will remain online at least through Labor Day.

The Grid was one of our biggest priorities,” Carr said. “Creating a game was an adjunct to our campaign. We didn’t want to do something that sent the wrong message.”

Indeed, finding the right message and tone permeated The Grid’s production, given the sensitivity about depicting Arab terrorists. Fox TV’s Madden said the studio “went to enormous lengths to work with advisers in the Muslim world.”

'GRID 2’ IN WORKS

The series’ success is encouraging the production partners to develop a “season-two” agenda. Madden declines to confirm whether this year’s stars (Julianna Margulies as a White House security counselor and Dylan McDermott as an FBI agent) would return, but added, “we don’t want to duplicate ourselves.”

Madden indicated there will be a different group of terrorists, even though the final scene dangled questions about the future activities of one of the Arab characters.

Scriptwriters are already “having lots of discussions in Washington,” Madden said, about issues that could shape the next all-too-realistic plot threads.

The entire production team is also, apparently, keeping in mind the after-market value of shows that easily extend into the DVR, VOD, DVD and online gaming worlds.

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