IQ News: Log Off, Tune In – The nets’ Web message is still: watch TV.



By Anya Sacharow





If the convergence between personal computers and TV is a phenomenon that could happen within the next five years, the broadcast networks, upon whom much of it will depend, are still on the fence when it comes to how they choose to use the Web.





In some instances, there’s the Web as potential profit center, as in the case of ABCNEWS.com, that network’s lower priced alternative to building a cable news network. Then there’s MSNBC, the cable and on-line news joint venture between Microsoft and NBC.





And there are the heavily promoted sports sites, such as ESPN SportsZone and CBS SportsLine. But, as far as the networks’ prime-time series, the most prevalent use of the Web right now is as a promotional tool, used to build a fan base and reinforce branding, with some attempts to throw ad revenue into the mix.





‘It is broadly promotional for the network and a new business opportunity,’ says Edmond Sanctis, senior vice president and general manager for NBC Digital Productions. ‘We’ve focused for the last few months on the entertainment initiative. The strategy is to extend the connection on-air to the fan. ‘





NBC has taken the lead on using the Web to create network-like entertainment. In February, it created a Web spinoff to its acclaimed Baltimore-based detective show Homicide: Life on the Street. Called Homicide: Second Shift, the on-line series uses a second set of detectives to solve a second set of crimes. More recently, NBC promoted its Saturday-night TV line-up, called Thrillogy, with new Web areas for The Pretender, a suspense show based on a genius, Jarod, who assumes different identities, and Profiler, based on a forensic psychologist’s crime solving. During the season finale of Profiler, when one character put up a Web site, NBC.com concurrently launched one on-line.





The on-line shows will continue this summer. Second Shift has a number of new episodes, while The Pretender Adventure will ask users to try to find Jarod, who is on the run. AT&T, General Motors, Visa, IBM and Nissan have run banners on NBC.com.





But the goal is to sign more sponsorships. Microsoft, with whom NBC has a media partnership, sponsors Second Shift, providing added clues for users of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer Web browser. Toyota sponsors The Tonight Show area and has licensed content from NBC for an on-line auto area on its own site.





However, it’s worth noting that most series promotion, no matter what the network, is simultaneous with each series’ TV launch. There’s no sign of a trend towards using on-line to promote series ahead of their debuts.





Foxworld.com, produced by the Fox marketing department, will promote the net’s summer TV season. For example, Roar, an adventure show set in Europe 400 A.D., will have an on-line game at its July launch. And Fox is currently promoting a new summer talk show, the Brit-hosted Ruby Wax Show, in an area on Foxworld. ‘This is a new media,’ says Cindy Hauser, Fox senior vice president for print advertising, special projects and on-line entertainment. ‘If we’re not there representing the Fox brand, we’re doing a disservice.’





Ever-popular areas on Foxworld are a log of Bart Simpson’s phone calls to Moe’s Tavern, a Melrose Place magazine and The X-Files site. In the fall, on-line events will surround the second seasons of animated comedy King of the Hill and the drama thriller Millenium. Promotions from Dr. Pepper, Coca-Cola and Polaroid have all run on Foxworld.





The advertising success of NBC and Fox might indicate there is opportunity for on-line ad revenue, but agencies don’t seem so convinced it’s a worthwhile buy for their clients yet.’The key word is eventually,’ says John Lazarus, senior partner of national broadcast operations, BJKE Media Group. ‘It is certainly a medium and one we’re involved with. At this point there’s a fine line. We want it as value added and the networks want it to be a line item from sales. Until it’s more quantifiable and accountable we have a hard time putting money on it.’





Such skepticism isn’t fazing CBS, which will launch a sister site to its CBS.com promotion area, which houses the prime-time schedule as well as sites for The Young and the Restless and Touched by an Angel. Called CBS Now, it is being developed as an all-encompassing site that will launch in January with local, national and international news, weather, traffic, sports and entertainment. And the network is hoping that advertisers will be willing to buy space on the venue. However, it appears likely that CBS, which does have its CBS.com site audited by I/PRO, will have to fine-tune its traffic data to make it a good ad sell.





Fox admits to similar holes in its knowledge of traffic within the Foxworld site. ‘We signed up with I/PRO and I was just getting raw numbers,’ says Hauser. ‘I can tell you I get 2 million visitors a month, but I can’t tell you who are repeat visitors.’





ABC, meanwhile, has flat-out stated it is not out to make money with its ABC.com site. The ABC site offers information on new programming. The most extensive on-line efforts were during the six-week miniseries The Shining. A site surrounding the show was up for a month and included an on-line contest. During the month of May new content went up to promote the May sweeps, including the ‘coming out’ episode of Ellen. But no promotions were sold. ‘It’s a marketing and promotional tool for us to involve users with programs and encourage them to watch TV,’ says Brent Petersen, vice president of photography and new media for ABC.





For the networks, the message may be convergence can wait.





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