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TV casts a wide net for higher ratings

The Baltimore Sun

As the May TV sweeps period gets under way, ABC's hit Desperate Housewives will attempt to lure new viewers tonight with the well-worn tactic of a catfight between two sexy stars.

But over on Fox later this ratings period, fans of Bones will find something new for network TV at the online social networking site MySpace: profiles, complete with fictional video diaries and blogs of suspects and potential victims who will later appear in an episode of the popular crime series.

The writers of Bones have created for the show a full-blown companion universe in cyberspace just in time for sweeps, a four-week period during which audience measurements are used to set advertising rates.

Cameo celebrity appearances and over-the-top plot twists are techniques long used by networks to boost their ratings during what industry insiders dub "Sweeps Mania," which will run through May 23.

But this year, for the first time, the programming stunts extend far beyond the TV screen -- to computers, cell phones and iPods. These new online elements include blogs and e-mail "written" by fictional characters, and companion episodes of hit series offered only on the Web.

"We're living in a hybrid era, and people are watching TV differently these days," says Abe Novick, an advertising executive who specializes in pop culture and new media at Channel Communications in Towson.

"I watch TV with my laptop on, and I find myself regularly moving between the two screens. That's what the TV industry is starting to address with concepts like the Bones episode that uses MySpace. It's an old medium moving into a new one, and it's a business model that everybody in the media is pursuing, from newspapers to network TV."

May sweeps, the homestretch of the network TV year, is historically a season of silly gimmicks and a bellwether of popular taste.

During the mid-1950s, Milton Berle, star of NBC's The Milton Berle Show, appeared in drag at least once during sweeps month, often as a June bride. The show's ratings jumped each time.

It was the same story in the 1980s, when the leading ladies of Dynasty went toe-to-toe.

As the catfight on Desperate Housewives tonight demonstrates, the same tricks live on.

On NBC, Law & Order, the longest-running drama on network TV, and Law & Order: Criminal Intent, a spinoff, will try to win viewers with episodes mimicking the last, lurid days of reality TV star Anna Nicole Smith and the astronaut love triangle, respectively.

CBS will also go old-school as it says farewell to Bob Barker, the longest-running game-show host in TV history, with an extravagant two-night sendoff that will rival Katie Couric's seemingly endless on-air departure from NBC's Today last May.

Even Fox, the network with the youngest audience profile, is recycling a well-worn gimmick, with producers promising that yet another recurring character will be killed off on the anti-terrorist thriller 24.

'In transition'

"What you'll see on screen this May is lots of the old and some of the new strategies side by side -- a snapshot of a mass medium in transition," says University of Maryland media economist and historian Douglas Gomery.

"The new-media strategies are the important ones, the ones that the networks need to succeed if they are going to get young viewers."

One of the most intriguing initiatives involves Fox's Bones and the May 9 episode of the series, which opens with investigators discovering glowing, possibly radioactive human remains.

In the long tradition of TV police procedurals, suspects and other potential victims are introduced throughout the hour as the lead characters, forensic anthropologist Temperance "Bones" Brennan (Emily Deschanel) and FBI Agent Seeley Booth (David Boreanaz), investigate the crime.

Some online fans of the show will be way ahead of the TV sleuths. Long before the episode premieres, they will have met all the suspects and possible victims: Their profiles were posted on MySpace this month.

Visitors to the social networking site in the past few weeks have been able to read blogs "written" by the show's characters, watch their videos, sign up to be "friends" and trade e-mail with the fictional personas -- all the while knowing that one of the new cyberspace acquaintances will die on the air May 9.

The idea for the show's venture into new media grew out of business concerns, says Stephen Nathan, executive producer of Bones.

"We were talking one morning about how we could create some sort of synergy -- because Fox owns MySpace -- to get younger viewers who spend a lot of time on the Internet to cross over and see a show they might not normally watch," says Nathan, who wrote the May 9 episode.

"Also, we wanted to drive some of the regular Bones viewers to the Internet to find the other material that was available on the Bones Web site, or in chat rooms and message boards. We thought it would fill out or enrich the experience of viewing the TV show for them."

Although the crossover concept, which was first tried with a single character from the FX cable drama Nip/Tuck, was far more complicated than had been anticipated, Nathan and the other producers of Bones will probably use the same strategy next year during sweeps.

"It's been a wonderful thing to be involved in the creation of this online universe. ... The hope is that it will mean a richer viewing experience for fans and maybe new viewers for the show."

Chris Ender, senior vice president of communications at CBS, predicts that viewers will see even more old media-new media cross-promotion and programming in the future.

"Going forward, this will be part of our DNA, and it's all about creating more touch points for the audience to keep up and, hopefully, find or discover our shows," says Ender, whose network owns the online site cbs.com/innertube.

CBS is offering several digital options to viewers during this sweeps period. Fans of Ghost Whisperer, a Friday night drama starring Jennifer Love Hewitt, can stream original episodes of a companion series, Ghost Whisperer: The Other Side, written only for the Web, at cbs.com/ghost.

Country music fans can download a series of three- to five-minute video diary clips from singer Taylor Swift at cbs mobile.com. The series, Taylor Swift's Road to the ACM's, designed for iPods and cell phones, is intended to promote the 42nd annual Academy of Country Music Awards telecast, which will air May 15 on the network.

Tributes to Barker

Perhaps nothing exemplifies the industrywide trend as well as a CBS online campaign in which viewers are being urged to send in 15-second video tributes to game-show host Barker. Participants are asked at cbs.com to upload their video tributes to YouTube. The network will pick the best to show during a two-night farewell party airing May 16 and 17.

Ender acknowledges that there is no proof that online programming increases audiences. (Less than a year old, the online efforts are too new to provide any basis for comparison.)

"But we're driven by the belief that new technologies can only help us," he says. "In just about every single meeting we have now to launch a new show, online is top of mind."

The same is true in meetings at NBC, says Vivi Zigler, executive vice president for digital entertainment and new media.

NBC has created one of the industry's richest online sites this year, with an interactive novel and a character blog for its hit series Heroes, the saga of ordinary people with extraordinary powers engaged in an epic struggle to save the world.

About 50 million full-length episodes of the series have been streamed this year from nbc.com, more than for any other series on network TV.

"There is a strong appetite for quality, online, digital content," says Zigler. "And for all the success with Heroes and other NBC shows, we believe there is still a lot to be offered to consumers on that front. That is the proposition that now drives our strategy in every way."

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

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