That show last year became the first to demonstrate that digital viewership can add to a program's audience instead of just siphoning viewers away from TV. "The Office's" Nielsen ratings last season ticked up at the same time NBC added the show to iTunes.
Since then, many other shows from various broadcast and cable networks have performed admirably on iTunes and other online venues. But "The Office" pioneered how to take advantage of digital media. The show's digital success is also noteworthy because "The Office" struggled in ratings before the online ramp-up.
NBC now looks to "The Office" as a template when it introduces digital spinoffs, as with "Heroes" last fall.
"One thing is clear: The buzz we got in the marketplace generated interest in 'The Office,' " says Jeff Gaspin, president-cable and digital content at NBC Universal. He says the show became the impetus for "TV 360," the initiative NBC Universal unveiled at last year's upfront to create digital extensions for all its shows.
"The Office" began doing double duty with its digital forays during its second season on NBC, when the network made the show available on iTunes in December 2005.
The show quickly shot up to the No. 1 downloaded TV program on iTunes.
NBC turned its attention next to ad-supported online venues. During the network's development meeting a year ago, NBC gave the green light to produce about a dozen "The Office" webisodes for summer 2006. The episodes, featuring supporting characters, ran only on NBC.com; sponsors included FedEx Corp., Toyota Motor Sales USA and Fox Searchlight's "Little Miss Sunshine."
While other networks had experimented with short shows made for mobile phones, "The Office" became one of the first marquee broadcast properties to spawn an original web series.
The webisodes bridged one season to the next, helping maintain interest in the show during the summer rerun doldrums, Mr. Gaspin says. The webisodes were even included on last September's DVD release of Season 2, which became Universal's fastest-selling TV show on DVD. More webisodes of "The Office" are likely for this summer.
"The Office" maintains on ongoing presence on NBC.com with content such as "exclusive deleted scenes."
Original online content, such as websisodes, is a good bet for a network, says Will Richmond, president of online video researcher Broadband Directions. "They allow fans to engage more deeply and give advertisers additional, high-value inventory."
Digital spinoffs are attractive to advertisers primarily because they offer a means to reach younger demographics, says T.S. Kelly, senior VP-director of research and insight for Media Contacts, the interactive arm of Havas media agency MPG, New York. "I would argue that for anyone under 30, we need a different media mix. "
Advertisers buying in
MPG has placed advertisers such as Fidelity Investments, Royal Caribbean International and Hershey Co. in online TV venues including NBC.com, ABC.com and AOL's In2TV channel. Younger people "are choosing media channels that best fit their lifestyle," Mr. Kelly says.
NBC.com visitors who watch the network's shows online also skew younger, more frequently male and more educated than the average TV and internet audience-another bonus for advertisers. About 78% of site visitors who watch shows on NBC.com said they missed the show on broadcast TV.
NBC found that 81% of viewers recall the pre-roll ads after two or more exposures. NBC.com doesn't include epidsodes of "The Office" but does feature full episodes of "Heroes," "My Name Is Earl," "30 Rock," "Friday Night Lights" and "Las Vegas."
Boost visits 74%
The network's online video strategy is working. NBC grew the number of unique viewers to its website by 74.1%, to 9.4 million, in 2006, according to Nielsen/NetRatings.
"Heroes" probably owes some of its breakout success to the way NBC promoted it through online venues. Before last fall's network premiere, NBC partnered with Nissan North America to offer a gift card at Regal Cinemas to watch "Heroes" free on iTunes.
"We wanted to get this [show] out there to early adopters of technology," Mr. Gaspin says. "We knew from the success of a show like [ABC's] 'Lost,' which had a similar kind of a sensibility and curiosity, that audiences crave extensions like this."
In addition to iTunes, where "Heroes" regularly lands among the top 10 TV shows, NBC ran full-length episodes on NBC.com. In late January, the network rolled out wireless content for the show.