For the slate of new and returning fall season shows, the networks are cautiously experimenting with fan participation, while cable networks are diving in on the deep end.
At this time last year, every major network had made up with YouTube (except Viacom) and rolled out new websites and features focused on video clips and previews, as well as full episodes to promote their brands and monetize the traffic with advertising. Cable networks, on the other hand, lagged behind in both video and monetization.
Fall '07 tells a different story, with blogs, UGC and widgets percolating up from cable networks onto websites with the addition of advertising and sponsorships. While online video in the form of full episodes is still generally missing, the amount of innovation and fan participation has been ramped up in campaigns ranging from USA Network's "Monk" to promotions on BravoTV and VH1.
Aggressive moves by cable
USA Network's "Monk" is being promoted on the network, encouraging fans to go online to meet fans in the show's community and submit videos, pictures and a profile related to a UGC-based "Where's Monk" bobblehead promotion. Here, fans submit pictures of their Monk bobbleheads and the voters can play detective and guess where Monk is around the globe. It's all tied into an on-brand Windex sponsorship along with a "Closet Makeover" contest. Windex gets the promotional branding with display ads on the custom game screens and a logo that clicks back to their website. Yet, Windex (and USA Network) misses the opportunity for the branded entertainment tie-in by not having a "Monk" image on the CPG website.
Where the "Monk" site itself falls short is with its faux blog, which are becoming popular among entertainment websites. On the "Monk" website blog, characters and production staff post comments to the site, even though the site does not allow comments from fans (hence, the "faux"). Networks need to realize that while they give up some control, what's lost without a quick post is the sense of immediacy and participation that those familiar with blogging are accustomed to.
In contrast, Bravo TV's site delivers fresh content with videos, cast blogs that viewers can actually respond to and a widget that allows fans to show Bravo's video on their MySpace pages. And, while the blogs are moderated, at least it's a step in the right direction to give fans a sense of ownership and participation in the show and their favorite characters.
Finally, on the cable front, the show that gets my vote for Web 2.0 show of the year is season 3 of VH1's "Flavor of Love." The show has given some of this year's casting over to fans and contestants who register for the site. Contestants and voters upload a profile, photos and video of themselves while registered voters submit a vote a day. Each profile has a blog feature that lets fans comment back and forth. As you take a look at the voter profiles, it allows for testimonials from contestants, which act as solicitations for votes. And, to give added incentive to vote, top ballot stuffers are featured on the home page.
To cap it off, contestants can syndicate and promote their profiles via a promotion widget, so the contestants can use their MySpace accounts as another channel of visibility. All of these tactics work together to give this quirky show some great momentum in new fan acquisition and returning fan retention.
Cautious network updates
While cable networks seem to be embracing some of online's more renegade strategies, network TV is still playing it relatively safe. The networks are focusing on hitting fall premiere time with strong slate of show-based video, though with a heavier emphasis on web exclusives, full episodes, recaps and clips.
In addition, the major networks (ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox) have all updated their fall schedule pages with links to show landing pages or mini-sites.
That said, CBS and NBC are, indeed, starting to test out the participatory realm. CBS is touting series premieres on its home page with links to show landing pages that include a video and cast list, along with viral hooks like bookmarking, send to a friend and video URL/embed links. These serve as quick reminders of where favorite fan content is and easily allows fans to share with friends. Finally, its Fall Showcase is a co-branding effort with TiVo that features a TiVo-based interface and the ability to click through to a branded 'Full Season Pass'M that links to TiVo's website.
NBC is also dipping its toes in the blogging waters with "Saturday Night Live" and has created a live blog with "Days of Our Lives" stars Brandon Beemer and Jay Kenneth Johnson. And, recently announced was the development of widgets for NBC news and sports ("Dateline," "Hardball with Chris Matthews," "Meet the Press" and "NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams," "NBC Sports," "iVillage" and "DotComedy") that will serve as tools to syndicate NBC content out to its partner websites.
ABC had the most complete fall schedule update, with consistency across new and returning shows for cast listings and schedules all on a simple landing page, while Fox used various landing pages and mini-sites with a mixture of available information. Clearly, Fox and its fans would benefit from a more uniform approach to content and user experience. ABC creates excitement with a dramatic black-on-white ‘new fall shows' masthead with the prominent tagline: ABC Starts Here. Once a fan picks a show, he or she is quickly taken to a show page with that has video front-and-center, which encourages fan trial and engagement with the content through an elegant mixture of message boards, blogs and message boards.
Clearly, the networks still are the kings of content and play to their strengths in that area by featuring either full episodes or web exclusives in addition to monetizing episodes on iTunes or other digital distribution outlets online. Cable networks are more nimble and capable of taking risks with the integration of user-generated content, blogs and content syndication with widgets. Going forward, we will see continue to see the major networks migrate to a more participatory fan experience or risk the chance of losing that fan traffic to entertainment hubs and fan sites, where opinions and fan content can flow freely. Cable will eventually begin releasing more full episode and clip content or risk losing its traffic to the video aggregators like YouTube, Revver and others.
Mike Wokosin is vice president of entertainment at Real Branding. .