Virtual writers' room
TV fans are already having their say and influencing program content. When Allan Heinberg joined the writing team of ABC's hit series "Grey's Anatomy" this season, he began contributing to the blog "Grey Matter," posting this missive before his first episode: "So, here's the thing: You people terrify me. You're passionate, you're insightful, you're bravely outspoken. You know 'Grey's Anatomy' better than anyone, except maybe Shonda Rhimes [the creator]. And I don't know if you realize this, but the way you write about the show, debate it, love and/or hate it carries an enormous amount of weight in the writers' room." The October post has since attracted 1,200 comments; many praised the episode and welcomed him to the show.
"The question is: To what extent do fans want self-expression?" said Albert Cheng, exec-VP digital media at Disney-ABC, who this month cited community as a priority for the Mouse House. "We're really thinking about how to expand the community and posting comments. We're also thinking about how we embrace fans that create their own sites. ... Do we want to identify top fan sites? It is almost a very weird reversal."
The CW was the first broadcast network to create a presence on MySpace, according to a spokeswoman for Fox Interactive Media, which built the CW page. The newly formed network, which targets young adults, has worked hard to incorporate fan videos and comment areas for its shows.
'Crashed the site'
So far, the CW has accumulated 27,000 friends on MySpace, an indicator of the network's popularity. My Network TV, a newer presence online, has attracted almost 4,000 friends and launched a band search at its MySpace page. "We had so many entries that it actually crashed the site once," said Bob Cook, president of Twentieth Television. My Network TV characters also blog about their lives, and the network is in the midst of a nationwide casting call that is helping increase traffic.
So why all this focus on building communities around TV shows, an endeavor which for the most part seems to be attracting little revenue, judging by the traffic and surrounding ads?
"The web is a wonderful platform to allow you to reach deeper in terms of information, and if you don't do it, you run the risk of losing control," said Olivier Gers, a general manager at FremantleMedia, which produces Fox's "American Idol." More importantly, the audience expects programs to have multiple lives. Mr. Gers said the "American Idol" blogs are revenue generators.
Taking clues from clicks
Of all the community-building efforts, Bravo's "Project Runway" has been one of the most successful. It began in December 2004 when the cable net created a blog and podcast for Tim Gunn, an adviser on the show. Now there are more than 10 blogs and podcasts on the show's site, from show producers, designers and former contestants. NBC Universal, of which Bravo is a part, also houses social-networking initiatives at its newly acquired iVillage website.
Bravo determines which "Runway" personalities to enlist for blogging by keeping close watch on which designers get the most web clicks and appear to have the highest interest on message boards. And the phrase "You've been auf'd," a play on host Heidi Klum's signature parting of auf Wiedersehen, was coined on a message board before Bravo co-opted it for its own marketing materials.