To keep fans watching, TV turns to the Internet

THE BALTIMORE SUN

HOLLYWOOD -- The Beacon Hill murders have Sherri Washburn baffled. She spends hours each day sifting through crime-scene photographs and police reports, musing over such questions as why the numeral "3" was scrawled in blood on the foreheads of the three victims. More evidence, she figures, might help her crack the case.

Another reason to tune in to NBC for the next episode of Crossing Jordan.

The network has found a way to keep superfans like Washburn engaged with the crime drama all week long: an online diary created by the show's writers that asks viewers to help the character Nigel Townsend of the Boston medical examiner's office solve the murders.

It's a drama that mostly plays out on the Web. Nigel will mention the unsolved murders occasionally on the air and drop clues for cyber-sleuths, but he will solve the case only at Nigelblog.com -- with the help of Washburn and other fans.

"It's not enough to just watch the show," said Washburn, 47, who works on the case from her Houston home when not tending to her ailing mother. She's among 13,000 fans of Crossing Jordan who visited the site within eight days after Nigel mentioned it in conversation with another character during the Feb. 13 episode.

The days of promoting a TV show with a basic Web site are over. Network executives now are developing elaborate Web productions for many of their shows to create buzz, earn extra advertising dollars -- and, by strengthening viewer loyalty, keep ratings up.

Reality shows blazed the trail by putting outtakes on the Web. Now producers of scripted prime-time dramas have joined the trend, bringing some interactivity to a historically one-way medium. They are creating Weblogs, producing Internet-only video segments that introduce new story lines and releasing footage of actors and producers discussing the shows.

Some networks are even letting people watch full episodes of TV programs on the Web. America Online Inc. has made the WB network's Jack & Bobby and Everwood, as well as Bravo's Queer Eye for the Straight Girl, available online to its subscribers -- without commercial interruption. Showtime Networks last month said Yahoo users could watch the first episode of the new Kirstie Alley show, Fat Actress, on their computers for five days after it premieres on the pay cable network tomorrow. (See story, page 12.)

These approaches all have one goal in common: to keep people engaged with television shows that typically appear on air once a week.

"You want to create a circle," said Stephen Andrade, vice president of interactive development for NBC Entertainment. "You see something on-air, you go online to learn more about it, and it sends you back onto the air."

New plot lines, clues

That was the idea behind an effort by Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. to promote the WB Network's Superman teen drama, Smallville, on America Online, a sister company in the Time Warner Inc. empire. For May sweeps in the last two seasons, the show's producers wrote and shot weekly "webisodes" that AOL members could watch online each Wednesday, before the show aired on the WB.

Centered on Chloe Sullivan, a character who investigates strange happenings in the fictional Kansas town of Smallville, the "Chloe Chronicles" were created on a small budget and had poor production quality compared with the television show. But the creators used the Web to introduce new plot lines and offer clues to things that would happen in forthcoming episodes.

At Fox Broadcasting Co., nearly every new show has to have a Web twist, said Chris Carlisle, executive vice president of marketing. For the new drama series Point Pleasant, the show's producers wrote and shot a fake documentary about the long history of evil in town, then posted it on the show's Web site to "build out the mythology of Point Pleasant," Carlisle said.

Loyal fans of The Simpsons have learned that if a character mentions a Web site on the show, that address is probably worth a visit. During a recent episode, one of the characters, a local comic book owner, posted a silly video of Homer Simpson on Dorks-Gone-Wild.com. Fox registered the Web address, and Simpsons executive producer Matt Groening had his animators stock the site with videos and a link to the show's Web site.

Advertising boost

Another lure is the promise of additional advertising dollars. Revenue from Web ads in the United States is expected to surge past $11 billion this year, and television executives are trying to cash in. So far, advertisers have been slow to sponsor promotions on networks' Web sites. But the market for Web ads is growing too fast for TV executives to overlook.

NBC, a unit of General Electric Co., was a pioneer in using original material on the Internet to promote a television show. In 1997, the network created Homicide: Second Shift, a Web spinoff of the Emmy-winning Baltimore-based drama Homicide: Life on the Street, with a separate cast of characters and interactive crime scenes. The show ran for longer than two years and was supported by advertisers such as Intel Corp. and Microsoft Corp. But it was ahead of its time and, with the additional actors, too expensive to repeat.

The network took a more modest approach for Crossing Jordan. NBC executives approached the show's creator, Tim Kring, and asked him to find ways to use the Web to attract more viewers. Kring said he wanted to come up with something that would get fans, the media and even his own bosses talking about the show, which is in its fourth season. In an industry in which "everything is about what's new and shiny," he said, that's difficult to do.

"There's so much competition for the viewer, and the networks are fighting for a smaller and smaller patch of land," Kring said. "The more creative and outside the box you start thinking about reaching viewers, the more successful the network is going to be."

So Kira Arne, the show's executive story editor, and Sharon Lee Watson, a writer and co-producer, hatched the idea of creating a blog based on forensics expert Nigel, a quirky supporting character played by British actor Steve Valentine. As with most mystery programs, Crossing Jordan viewers are constantly trying to beat the show's investigators to the solution. The Web site gives them a chance.

"Watching the show is very passive," Arne said. "With the Web site, they're able to navigate through a case. It's a more in-depth way of participating with the mysteries."

They introduced the Web initiative by working it into the Feb. 13 episode, which drew 12.2 million viewers.

"Blogs are the future," Nigel says to his colleague, nicknamed Bug.

"Blogs?" Bug replies.

"Oh, I'm sorry," Nigel says. "Haven't you joined the 21st century? Online journals. I've started posting all the evidence on the Beacon Hill murders."

"Like some Joe from Pawtucket is going to find something that we trained professionals can't?" Bug asks.

"It's been three years," Nigel says. "Maybe we get lucky. Someone sees something in those bloody killings we didn't."

Then he mentions the Web address -- and when that happens on television, fans will see if the Web site exists. That night, more than 2,600 people visited Nigel blog.com, where they found pages of evidence relating to the cases of three women found murdered and with the numeral "3" written on their foreheads. Fans started filling the site's message boards before the episode had ended.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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