Television is tuned into the online audience
Broadcast is ephemeral, but Web sites live on and on. Once upon a time, if you had a PTA meeting on Tuesday night, you missed your favorite TV show. Your only hope was that you might catch it months later during summer reruns. Otherwise, it was lost to you, gone into the ether from which it came.
Today, no favorite is lost. Instead, it's on Lost's Web site or the site for Deadliest Catch, or whatever your must-see is.
In this era of broadband digital video, the actual broadcast of a show may be only a fraction of its life. Almost every TV show has a site, or at least a microsite. There's still that basic disconnect between the broadcast or cable audience and the audience online. Producers can't say whether a Web site increases the audience for the show: "No one has cracked that nut," says Robin Bennefield, executive producer of interactive media for Discovery Communications. "The assumption is yes. If you're a fan of any show and curious enough to go to the Web site, you already know when it's on - and you care. Once you get to the site, you're likely to not just go deeper on the subject that drew you there but also to explore more." TV show Web sites are a handy place to send people who respond to pre-show advertising, making them more likely to remember to actually watch. They're also a dynamite way to increase ad revenue because, while there's only a finite amount of broadcast spots, online inventory is nearly infinite. In fact, the tail is beginning to wag the dog: Some shows' digital components are entertaining enough to be destinations in themselves, long after the show is off the air.
Digging for an Audience
"We try to do unique stuff that both adds to what's in the show and also extends it," says Matt Zymet, director of digital media for National Geographic Channel. Games are a frequent feature, because they keep people engaged longer. The Stonehenge Decoded site features puzzles based on facts from the show, along with a multimedia examination of some of the far-out theories behind the construction and purpose of the mysterious site.
The microsite supporting Dinosaur Week featured Fossil Hunt, a game that took players through the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous eras, along with an interactive Dino-Mummy Timeline, interactive 3-D models and a Dino Mummy CT scan.
The longer people play around, the more exposure they get to promos for other shows. For example, the National Geographic Channel's Fight Science brought together martial arts masters and scientists to analyze the most vulnerable points on the human body. The companion Web site features videos, photos and a Flash game, but it's also chock-full of display ads for other shows, including Locked Up Abroad, and links to repackaged video assets, such as Women Behind Bars, which shows the gruesome aftermath of a real fight. The special is over, but the Web site still does its cross-promotional chores.
Reeling them In
This year's season of Deadliest Catch launched with a serious social media component. To support the show about rough and sexy crab fishermen, Discovery Communications launched a community site where fans can compete in weekly challenges, chat during the show, create profile pages and vie for "superfan" status. Surprisingly, this is the sort of thing people actually get excited about. There's also a wiki, where aficionados can fill in templates highlighting the most hair-raising moments or pithiest quotes.
"It seemed like a community was out there, but they didn't have a place to come together," says Bennefield. The wiki and profiles also reveal important information about the fan base, which seems to include a huge proportion of stay-at-home moms. It's also uncovered a teacher in Las Vegas who uses the show to get kids to explore services like the National Climatic Data Center to try to figure out where the crabbers should head their ships. All this insight helps the producers choose story lines to emphasize.
Viewers can stay connected when the show is on hiatus, thanks to interviews and exclusive video posted to the site, as well as a video podcast series that takes you around Dutch Harbor, the real Alaskan port where the fishermen berth their ships.
"We're starting to call things properties, not just shows," Bennefield says. "Deadliest Catch is a property; underneath that are the show, the site, the mobile site, the video-on-demand."
This change in thinking is reflected in the production schedule for the online components. When a show gets the green light, Discovery Channel producers begin thinking about how to package it with new media elements, so advertisers will be lured by the whole package, Bennefield says.
Hey, Up in Front
HBO tends to blow out the multimedia property concept, adding offline content and deep dives into the stories behind a show. On the site for the John Adams miniseries, you can order the book, by John McCullough, on which the series was based. The site includes original content like behind-the-scenes features, production sketches, preview and recap videos, and slideshows. A timeline lets users follow important events and characters. Behavior, which created the site, worked with McCullough, the director and scriptwriter to create extras that tied into the themes of each episode.
"This is one of the pieces within the larger marketing machine of a new project," says Jeff Piazza, a principal at Behavior. "It's part of the full package that people expect now."
The Behavior team worked closely with the video production crew, helping craft interview questions and even giving input on the storyline for the site. Production of digital assets for the Web site ran concurrently with the video production. Behavior might send a request for photography over to the set, while the production crew sent back physical assets like fabric swatches and props. "It helps to craft a very specific point-of-view for telling a story that's unique," Piazza says.
Increasingly, that package is being sold up-front. National Geographic has been selling digital at its upfront for three years, says Richard Goldfarb, senior vice president of media sales, who oversees ad sales for both the cable service and Web sites. "Frankly, the fact that we can offer it along with the cable network can sometimes - or frequently - lead to a larger ad commitment on the cable channel," he says. And that's got everybody checking out Nat Geo's package.