Thursday, September 18, 2008

Web-evision: Television on the Internet

Tuesday was “Digital Day” at the New York Television Festival. One panel of interest for this writer was “The Web Effect: How the Internet is Changing Television”, moderated by Television Without Pity’s Dan Manu, and featuring Craig Engler (SVP, and SCIFI Magazine); Joe Michael (Senior Director, Business Development, MSN Entertainment, Video & Sports); Dalton Ross (Editor-at-Large, Entertainment Weekly), and Douglas Rushkoff (author of “Cyberia” and Founder, NYU’s Narrative Lab). It was a broad range discussion on how web extensions, provided by television network websites, have dedicated creative input into their program sites, expanding offerings for viewers such as original content webisodes, character blogs, and fan forums.

"Battlestar Gallactica", "Lost", "The Office", "Ugly Betty" and "Buffy The Vampire Slayer" are shows that produce the most fervent online fan following, thanks to what Craig Engler noted as the “Wow Factor”. Shows must find their success on air, which will lead to fans to seek a social online community to discuss episodes and character development. Fan sites begin to sprout with discussions, and cult followings are born, proving the program is ripe for full dedicated network produced web extras. where storylines are carried out through deleted scenes, webisodes, social networks, fan fiction, gaming and live community chat rooms.

What makes a show gain momentum in Cyberspace? According to Dalton Ross, the most popular shows on the web are the “hardcore geek programs”, where people can weigh in on the outcome of story, as well as discuss contestants in a real life situation such as “Idol”. Also, serialized shows such as “Betty” and “Buffy” gain popularity on the web due to addiction to story outcome. "The Office" has held onto its on air popularity due to internet buzz. NBC committed to six episodes of the show as a mid-season replacement in 2005. Homegrown fan sites such as and started to sprout. The show took off as the second season produced a full twenty two episodes, and earned industry awards for best comedy. The documentary format may have created an online monster. Since "The Office's" organic situations provide limitations to where the cameras will go with the characters, much is left unsaid and unseen, allowing the fans to fill in the rest, by speculating on spoilers, and devising their own wish lists for storyline conclusions.

"The Office" site is groaning with fun extras for fans to mingle over. Deleted scenes are available the day after broadcast, and are canon, providing more fodder for the online chats and bulletin board analysis. Also available are company newsletters for fans to read, Dunder Mifflin regional branch offices run by fans, fan community, video selections, online games and blogs written by characters such as Dwight and Meredith. Wanting to test the waters of original online content, The Office was one of the first to venture into webisodes: short story vinettes using the writers and cast to create short episodic programs made exclusively for the network website.

Webisodes branch out storylines, helping to titillate the audience, and taking the entire show to a whole new level. For example SCIFI Channel’s “Battlestar Gallactica” has embraced the internet as an extension to the show by producing webisodes as canon, filming them simultaneously with the original production and full cast and crew. One can see how the online community, already staunch contributors to bulletin boards and blogs will not only eat these mini stories like candy, but will use them as fodder for their discussions, solidifying a presence on the internet that will stimulate more programs and online extensions of the show.

ABC provides a dedicated website to “Lost”, and offers an outlet called “Missing Pieces”, a series of scenes omitted from the show that meld into canon, and reveals subplots and secrets not seen on the televised program.

The first “Office” webisodes, entitled “The Accountants”, was a ten part series of short two and a half minute episodes featuring the accounts of Dunder Mifflin Scranton as they try to solve the mystery of $2000 missing from their books. For summer 2008, the show produced another series entitled “Kevin’s Loan”, featuring another member of the second tier cast, Kevin Malone, as he brainstorms ways to make money to pay off his gambling debts. It’s hard to say if either storyline was canon. Nothing from the “Accountants” story was mentioned in subsequent episodes; yet, Kevin’s gambling issues, noted in this summer’s set, have always been hinted. Nevertheless, it opened a new extension to The Office fandom. These snippets of story have been successful for The Office and others, but they don’t work for all.

Webisodes are not suited for certain programs with a more serious, theatrical foundation. Popular programs such as Six Feet Under or The Sopranos have never devised a fan interactive sight due to cast demands and production costs. Also, the intensity of storyline did not cry out for fan interaction other than popular bulletin board discussions on HBO’s site, or on Television Without Pity.

A show such as Friday Night Lights, which has appealed to a smaller audience, has a web presence on NBC’s mother page, but the online community and web extras, albeit well established, are basic offerings, and is not breaking any ground on the internet as of yet. That may be due to the tenuous position the program has faced in the two seasons it’s been on air. The quality of “Lights” is high, but the viewership is low, which may attribute to the limited online experience for the viewers. Again, the on air “wow-factor” or lack thereof for “Lights” plays into the view that the more successful the show is on air, the more networks will contribute toward the web extras offered.

Sometimes scripted storylines are not always needed to add fuel to the online fan’s flame. Another topic discussed at the forum was the popularity of reality shows online. As Dalton Ross mentioned, programs like American Idol is one of the most popular blog sites on, with Lost next in line for the lion share of fan presence. Personalities and competition sparks talk among viewers longing to share the experience of Simon Callow’s bickering or Paul Abul’s wooziness, as singers strive for supremacy. The maturation or implosion of a competitor is key. It’s the “it could be me” factor that “American Idol” provides that may also contribute to the interest. Of course since American votes on the winner, that feeling of empowerment may increase a viewer’s need to share their thoughts on a contestant who has either improved from week to week, or forgotten the words on live television.

Bravo’s “Project Runway’s” show site is teaming with videos and blogs from judges and guest judges alike. Tim Gunn’s blog allows for his own insight into the challenge. There are also extras such as fashion tips and personal interest stories on the cast of “Runway”. (Who knew Tim could play piano?) The appeal of “Runway” is the pure creativity of the competitors that keeps the fans going to sites to congregate and express their opinions by trashing and lashing at the snarky stars, or lavishing affection for the most gorgeous couture creation. The show itself has been helped by sponsors who fit so well into the environment of Project Runway. TRESsemme and Bluefly as well as Mood are interwoven as tools of the competitors. It’s a case of sponsors killing two birds with one stone.

Advertisements online was brought into the discussion, but not as something to be part of the storylines of scripted shows or the outcome of reality, but as part of the website itself. MSN’s Joe Michael suggested that product placement could play an important factor in the interface of television sites, so that advertisers can place their product in a way that promotes their product, but doesn’t interfere with the programming. For instance, if Coke is the sponsor, the window of the media player could be in Coke red, with signage placed strategically and unobtrusive on the page. However, as most frequent visitors of television content sites can attest, commercials, in addition to ad space, are rampant within content, breaking shows with commercials, and interrupting the short attention span of the average internet user.

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