Network Jump-Starts TV Series On The Web

As The WB awaits over-night ratings from last night’s premiere of one of its most promising freshman series this season, the network is reveling in viewership results that came from an unlikely source: the Internet.

Over a one-week period, a commercial-free version of Jack & Bobby, described as a snapshot of a young man destined to be the greatest American president of the 21st century, was viewed in part or full roughly 700,000 times on AOL for Broadband, home to 4.1 million subscribers.

It was the first time a network program aired in its entirety on the Web before its broadcast debut—a formula The WB is repeating for The Mountain, which will appear starting today on Web sites belonging to Tribune Broadcasting’s WB affiliates ahead of the show’s Sept. 22 broadcast premiere.

But will the promotional stunt—designed to drive interest and word of mouth—cannibalize broadcast viewership and rankle advertisers, who invested in the fledgling programs?

“As an advertiser, you want hit shows on networks that help you reach your audience, so sampling seems like a great way to hype interest,” said Jon Gieselman, vp of advertising at Troy, Mich.-based Kmart.

“Do we give up a little something to get something? Yes, we do. … [But] it’s one episode we’re talking about to put some wind [in its sails] at a time when it’s very hard to get your message out,” said Brad Turell, evp of network communications at Burbank, Calif.-based The WB, which also sent DVDs of Jack & Bobby to subscribers of Time Inc.’s Entertainment Weekly. (The WB is owned by Time Warner, which also is parent to AOL and Time Inc.)

Results from an exit survey of more than 5,000 people who sampled the program indicate that the bet may have paid off. More than 85 percent of the respondents said they would recommend the show to a friend, and nearly 60 percent would make an effort to watch future episodes on the network.

“People will look back and say, ‘That was obvious.’ For younger audiences, which clearly The WB reaches, it’s all video. And it doesn’t particularly matter how and where they get it,” observed Tim Hanlon, svp, director of emerging contacts at Publicis Groupe’s Starcom Media-Vest Group in Chicago.

Patricia Karpas, vp and general manager at Dulles, Va.-based AOL Television, agreed. “Ultimately, content creators will be platform agnostic, and therefore advertisers will be as well,” she said.

Will such thinking spawn copycat online sampling drives from competing networks? “It’s certainly under discussion,” said Harry Lin, vp at ABC. com in Los Angeles.

In the meantime, Yahoo! svp of entertainment and content acquisitions Jim Moloshock said the Sunnyvale, Calif.-based portal is talking to cable networks about airing shows online concurrent to their TV run and in the week following.

For the most part, networks are plugging this fall’s lineup via the Web by offering synopses and video clips on their Web sites., for instance, is showing excerpts from the pilot episodes of Lost, Boston Legal and life as we know it, intermixed with exclusive video from the talent.