NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Is there a viable audience for a TV show even when that show is not on the air? NBC is testing the idea.
Even though the start of the third season of "Chuck" is at least several months away, NBC has launched a new online presence for the program -- separate from a more traditional site already found at NBC.com. ChuckMeOut.com is described as a less corporate version of a traditional TV show web venue -- the kind that is decked out with a corporate logo and that emphasizes tune-in time (Try finding the NBC "Peacock" logo on ChuckMeOut. Meanwhile, the only tune-in invitation there is offers surfers a chance to watch streaming video of the show).
If your favorite show stops running for months at a time, is it still a viable piece of entertainment? And do advertisers care? At a time when more programs often consist of fewer episodes and can go off the air for three, six, even more than 12 months at a time, NBC's ChuckMeOut experiment aims to discover how best to keep goosing the interest of any program's hard-core fan.
The line between watching a show on TV and keeping up with it online "is going to be blurred more and more and more," suggested Vivi Zigler, president-NBC Universal Digital Entertainment. "A fan is a fan, and they watch it and they want to know more when their hour is over each week, whether it's in series or in repeats or not."
As TV networks run more original programming year-round and begin to favor shorter runs of programs each year, sites such as ChuckMeOut.com could take on more importance.
While "Chuck" has a devoted fan base, its arc was hurt by the 2007-2008 writers strike, which ended the show's first season prematurely and left fans without something to talk about when NBC gave the humorous spy-serial another go in the fall of 2008.
Attempts at other networks
Other networks have tried show-specific sites, typically to generate interest in a program just before it debuts or starts a new season. CBS actively promoted a companion site to its failed mystery serial "Harper's Island," while Fox currently has a site at snakesonacane.com that features a countdown to the new start of "House."
"Chuck," however, is an interesting test case. The program was in danger of being canceled at the end of last season, with NBC only agreeing to keep it on the schedule after Subway, which has supported the show with hard-to-ignore product placements on set and in scripts, entered into a broader marketing partnership that will keep it alive in 2010. Even with a devoted fan base, it remains to be seen whether NBC can continue to stoke the embers among die-hards for half a year or more.
ChuckMeOut isn't snooty in tone; Ms. Zigler said people who operate the site are reaching out to other websites devoted to fans of "Chuck," the better to spark cross-promotion and offer links to digital flotsam and jetsam of interest to a real "Chuck"-o-phile. The site also features videos from promotional appearances at the recent Television Critics Association tour and San Diego Comic-Con.
And yet, the site may be worth more to fans than advertisers, suggested Greg Smith, chief operating officer of WPP's Neo@Ogilvy, a digital- and direct-marketing specialist. "You want to keep the flame alive. It's a must-do sort of thing," he said, particularly as TV networks increasingly opt for 13-episode runs instead of the traditional 22 to 26. But only a certain type of advertiser is likely to be interested, he said: "We certainly recognize the value of it, but the value of it to us, unless we're doing a special promotion with the show, is very limited, because the audiences tend to be so small."
At present, ads run on ChuckMeOut.com through run-of-site agreements with NBC.com, said Ms. Zigler, though NBC has been pitching it to "incumbents" who have been regular advertisers on "Chuck" the TV show. Recent ads spotted on the site include promotions for Clorox bleach and Fresh Step kitty litter. "We always look for individual sponsors, and, obviously, you would both out of courtesy and out of probability of success, you would automatically go to your incumbents for the web and TV," she said. Otherwise, she added, "we're definitely monetizing the page in our normal fashion."
Top advertisers for "Chuck" in 2009 include Sprint Nextel, Verizon Communications, General Motors, General Electric and Honda Motor Co., according to TNS Media Intelligence. Between Sept. 2008 and May 2009, "Chuck" took in approximately $52.4 million in TV advertising, TNS said.
As TV networks do more to catch the eyes of potential viewers wandering online, new formats such as ChuckMeOut.com are likely to surface again. Whether marketers will bite depends on the level of rabid fascination audiences demonstrate. "Advertisers are in if you know you're going to have a built-in audience," said Guy Schueller, group media director at the Detroit office of Omnicom Group's Organic digital agency. "If the show has a group of people that are constantly talking about anywhere, there's a potential chance that it' a viable option," he added. Otherwise, "it's pretty limited."