Why Dr. House Gets Condolence Messages

TV Nets Look to Engage Show 'Superfans' Online With Extra Web Content

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- It's a touching online memorial: a video tribute, an obituary, messages posted by co-workers and a link to a Facebook page for the grieving to leave glowing remarks about the deceased. Except the subject isn't dead and he isn't real: It's was Dr. Lawrence Kutner, a character on Fox's popular drama "House," whose writers had him inexplicably commit suicide earlier this month.

Dunder Mifflin Infinity
Facebook memorial for Dr. Lawrence Kutner

EXTRAS: 'The Office' extras include a corporate website for paper company Dunder Mifflin. (Below) Fox started a Facebook tribute page for Dr. Lawrence Kutner, a character from 'House.'

Like most of the nation's biggest TV networks these days, Fox is courting the so-called superfans who are heavily vested in the plotlines of their favorite programs and traverse the web to extend the viewing experience and engage with like-minded enthusiasts. While the networks attract tens of millions of people to their TV programs, as broadcast audiences steadily erode, they are also fishing for tens of thousands of these more rapt viewers online. According to the networks, superfans skew male and are at least 10 years younger than the general couch-potato population. They also visit the sites most heavily in the first 24 to 48 hours after a fresh episode of a favorite show runs on TV.

The plan is to woo them away from grass-roots fan sites operated by others and secure additional marketer support in the process -- all the while replenishing audiences who once turned to broadcast TV for entertainment only during prime-time hours.

"We didn't want these fans to wake up and have the website treat the show as business as usual," said Hardie Tankersley, VP-online content and strategy, Fox Broadcasting Co., regarding the "House" tribute. "We're continuing to look for ways to enrich the online experience and to keep interest in the show going the other six days of the week or even in the offseason, when it's not on the air."

In the week after the episode aired, Fox's "House" website moved to the third-most-visited website among broadcast and cable programs in the U.S., shooting up from No. 54, according to Hitwise.

Beyond TV
"It's another step in the gradual unbundling of broadcast content," said Steve Kerho, senior VP-analytics, media and marketing optimization at Omnicom Group's Organic, a digital-advertising specialist. "The networks are finally realizing, 'We're not really the TV people,'" he said, adding: "It doesn't have to be just about what happens on TV. We can push it out to other places."

The shows are still important, but these days, so are the ancillary ideas. A tossed-off remark about a calendar on "The Office" could turn into an interactive game at the show's website on NBC.com. A brief remark by Kenneth the Page on "30 Rock" could develop into a funny video soliloquy from the character at the show's site. "You start with what would be organic and creative to the television show, what would be fun and interesting for the fan to be able to play with once their 30 minutes or hour is up each week," said Vivi Zigler, president of NBC Universal Digital Entertainment.

CBS has been promoting Harper's Globe, a companion website to its new murder-mystery serial "Harper's Island," and launched the site a few weeks before the show made its debut. "Ponderosa," a companion web-video series for the network's popular "Survivor" reality contest, shows what happens to contestants after they leave the program (Sprint and Procter & Gamble's Downy were recently spotted sponsoring one vignette). Fans can see what happens to contestants after they get voted out of the program.

The belief at CBS is that superfans can drive new-media usage. "If you think about it, every killer app, from e-mail to instant messaging to social networks, are harnessing people's passion points," said Anthony Soohoo, senior VP-general manager of entertainment for CBS Interactive. "We have a lot to talk about in this area."

To get a sense of how many people are lured to the web content, consider some NBC data: An original October episode of "The Office" attracted 13.4 million overall viewers. In the week after the episode aired, "The Office" section of NBC.com generated 7.8 million page views. About 53,000 users played online games related to the show, and about 40,000 people generated more than 1 million page views on Dunder Mifflin Infinity, a separate NBC Universal website that gives surfers the experience of being an "employee" at the company featured in the show. The sites can help a network retain viewers even when a fresh episode isn't at the ready, said Rajat Paharia, founder of Bunchball, the company that helped create the Dunder Mifflin Infinity site.

Setting up extra content for web consumption means more work for TV producers and writers, as well as network executives. NBC's Ms. Zigler said the network has "embedded" people in various writers' rooms, all in the hope of finding an interesting element in a coming episode that could lead to a web play that will drive usage. Rather than mandating the same stuff for every show, NBC prefers web attractions to develop individually, she said. "It's much harder. It requires more resources to do it," she said.

The "Heroes" staff is certainly aware of that, said Dennis Hammer, the program's executive producer. "It may only be 12 minutes of time, but the web series still has to be shot and written, and it has to work."

So while fans of NBC's "Heroes" are well-acquainted with cheerleader Claire Bennet but may not be so familiar with a minor character named Doyle who can control people's actions and likes marionettes, series devotees will be able to learn more about him online with a web series launching April 20. It's expected to bring in much smaller crowds than the show, said Mr. Hammer, but that's not the point. "Every kind of entertainment has a different sized audience, and it doesn't take away from the quality," he said.

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