While networks boast that passionate fans of select programs spend even more time with the shows by going online and playing games, watching clips and reading blogs, the TV folk realize they make far more money off traditional TV viewers.
"The networks are still trying to figure out how to monetize the online stuff," said Steve Sternberg, exec VP-director of audience analysis at Interpublic Group's Magna Global. "If I put this content online, does it take away from my business or does it add to it?
This issue has already hit a nerve. CBS kept its sci-fi drama "Jericho," which launched in 2006, on the air after rabid fans besieged the network. They saw the nuclear-accident series as an intense, gripping hit that marked a welcome addition to the Tiffany Network's abundance of procedural crime dramas. CBS executives admonished fans for not watching the show live on TV, not just online or via a DVR, so the network could notch ratings. CBS is not bringing the show back.
At a conference last week, Ben Silverman, co-chairman of NBC Entertainment and Universal Media Studios, alluded to the idea that networks needed to devise content that could travel between both screens, even hinting that a show in development has a plan to drive viewers to the web to see a final scene. During the writers strike, NBC took a soapy, teen-oriented web show, "Quarterlife," and put it on TV with lackluster results. Sci-fi and "extreme comedy" are genres that might work better, Mr. Silverman said, adding that "Quarterlife" taught him a lesson: "I learned the hard way."
The CW is already trying to herd its online audience to the living-room screen. The network has refused to stream the last five episodes of drama "Gossip Girl" and has prompted consumers to take part in "watch and win" contests that require people to watch the program on TV in order to win a prize. The season finale will include a tie-in with Verizon Wireless and will prompt viewers to search for the "XOXO" symbol -- the title character's famous sign-off -- and text message their answers to win.
"We still are a television network, and it is through the television property that we get content for all the ancillary platforms," said Rick Haskins, the CW's exec VP-marketing. "So obviously we would like to have people experience the content on TV first and foremost and then move them to the other, digital platforms."
More is on the way for next season, said Alison Tarrant, the CW's senior VP-integrated sales and marketing. While the network has emphasized online "extras" for digital audiences, "we are evolving our strategy, giving these passionate fans more reasons to come back and watch their favorite shows live on television," she said, adding that the network is looking at way to make episodes into events. Among the ideas being considered: having fans send text messages to gain hints of coming plotlines, music downloads or even message from actors; mini-episodes that start on TV, move online and come back on TV again; and contests for prizes viewers can win by watching the show on TV.
The CW's challenge may be greater than those of the more-established networks since its viewers are younger and more digitally savvy than the average couch potato. Younger audiences are not accustomed to TV being the primary medium, said Magna Global's Mr. Sternberg. Older audiences see the web as a way to catch up on shows they may have missed, while people in their teens and early 20s see it as a primary means of getting video entertainment and information.
The network has not become a ratings powerhouse, bringing in an average of only 2.6 million live or same-day viewers in 2007, according to Nielsen. That average number slipped to 2.3 million in the first quarter of 2008, when all networks were struggling with content issues because of the writers strike that started in November. In contrast, recent episodes of Fox's "American Idol" have brought in an average of more than 20 million viewers. While the CW attracts a hard-to-reach young audience, "we are just hoping that they could get their ratings up a little," said Andy Donchin, director-broadcast at Aegis Group's Carat.
"Gossip Girl" is CW's best chance, media buyers and network executives agree. "We know that it's a pop-culture phenomenon," Mr. Haskins said. "It's really kind of hard to understand why everybody knows about it but it's not reflected in the ratings."
Indeed, "Gossip Girl" is the program that could "get CW back on the map," said Donna Speciale, president-investment and activation at Publicis Groupe's MediaVest USA, as the network can lure viewers to TV to watch it and then promote the rest of its schedule to generate buzz for its other programs.