Save the WAP Site, Save the World

I am not a geek. No, really.

My daughter is out there somewhere in cyberspace laughing her ass off right now and counting down all the reasons I am wrong. (She reads my columns from time to time for the same reason I check her MySpace -- to make sure I stay honest) Yes, I do have more cell phones than she has shoes. Yes, I even have more game consoles attached to my TV than she has Abercrombie hoodies (but she aims to catch up). And, sure, I have been known to overclock her PC until the sizzling and failing CPU renders her precious Sims characters as a hash of garbled ASCII characters. "Dad, what did you do to my machine now?"

But, my daughter's protests notwithstanding, I really am not a geek, and I can prove it. For instance, I do not know why I am supposed to save this cheerleader -- whoever she is. I fail the latest litmus test of geekdom. I neither appreciate nor understand NBC's "Heroes." I am not captivated by the premise (whatever it is) and I have not been drawn to any of the characters in the few attempts I have made to like the show.

And so it is even more remarkable that I fully appreciate the "Heroes" WAP site, which NBC claims has gotten over 200,000 page views since its January launch. For a destination driven by off-deck promotion, that is pretty damn good. Even better, the site delivers not just by extending the brand but offering unique content. It has all of the expected assets: images, premium wallpaper, cast bios and episode synopses. But I really like that it pushes some of the show's message boards to the handset. It brings voices to the medium rather than assets, and so it mimics the basic functionality of the device. This is all part of the "Heroes" 360 Experience NBC rolled out under Nissan's sponsorship. It is an ambitious multi-platform spin-off of the hit show, and one of the few good examples of a broadcast property leveraging different platforms in discrete and appropriate ways. Online, there are the usual character blogs. but also clues to run down, secret access codes to enter at mock Web sites associated with the show, etc.

I don't know enough about "Heroes" (save what cheerleader -- and why? And is the water boy in danger, too?) to tell whether any of these wild goose chases and character extensions really expand the show in a substantial way. Personally, I think that it suffers the same malady as a lot of Web sites attached to TV shows and films: it is only halfway fictional.

A lot of sites that like to have fun extending the world of a show mix it in with the standard promo fare: bios, theater times, trailers. So at the "Heroes" WAP site, we get the message boards from viewers (which would be good at a stock promo site) blended with character blogs and show synopses. I am not sure why a TV program site doesn't foreground the fictional experience and stay "in character" with the show. I would rather that the entire site lived within the "Heroes" fictional world. That would seem to be the most effective brand extension of all, and probably the best way to sell the concept to borderline believers like me. Promo sites with fictional elements seem to work at cross-purposes and never let you fully suspend disbelief.

Which is a pity, because it turns out that the contained universe of the handset WAP page can be a pretty effective way to envelop your visitor in a total fiction. The "Heroes" site really hits its stride in the mock banner ad for Primatech Paper, a front in the TV show for a secret research facility. The banner links to the Primatech site, which says it is hiring. There is even a click-to-call button that dials up an IVR tree. You can apply for a job or enter an access code for more information. Combining SMS push (the way you get to the site) with a WAP experience, ad click and then a voice call executes a very convincing range of one-to-one communications media that the Web doesn't quite match in the same way. The mobile phone has a wraparound quality that can touch you in several personal places and build a fiction very effectively. Sometimes the smaller the screen, the more involved you can become. It would behoove media programmers and marketers to keep this quality in mind.

The "Heroes" WAP site is only half-baked, but it hints at what is possible here. As much as I like the fictional extensions, there isn't enough to get me back, and that is going to be a real challenge in WAP sites. The episode guide and the message boards promise refreshed content, but the rest is more of a cool novelty than a real show companion.

What is here, however, invites even more imaginative energy. Imagine if the WAP site worked in real time and in tandem with events during the show. Imagine if it served as a second or third window into the plotline and characters. Some of the Bravo reality series experimented last season with letting us subscribe to certain characters and get text messages from them. I would love to see a hit fiction like "Heroes" leverage the peer-to-peer intimacy of the phone to bring us into a select character in real time. What if viewers could receive phone calls during the show from characters while they are off-camera and let us stay in contact with parallel plot lines that are occurring outside of the on-screen action?

Traditionalists might worry that deliberately dividing a viewer's focus from the main screen will only dilute attention to the main property and the real breadwinner even in a multi-screen world -- TV. Actually, the viewer's attention is already divided, so you might as well try to aggregate the pieces. BigResearch Vice President Joe Pilotta tells me that his media usage research is showing a lot of "triple play" viewing going on, with people managing Web, TV, and cell phones all at once. Contrary to conventional wisdom, attention is not diffused in this scenario -- but perhaps enhanced. People are capable of handling several streams. and it may even keep them focused. Simul-casting on multiple screens might engage the viewer with the fiction even more.

Who knows, we might be empowered to save two or three cheerleaders, perhaps the lacrosse team and the school newspaper reporter as well. Don't they deserve to avoid the coming apocalypse as well? Or does it really just boil down to the cheerleader? It might take three screens for me to understand what the hell this show is about.

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