Community TV

NEW YORK The headline reads: “Senate Bill 877 Hurts the Country’s Smallest Children.” Below that provocative line is an image of a small boy — whose back is to the camera — carrying a Winnie the Pooh bag as he trudges through the snow. It looks like your typical on-air news segment. Only it isn’t: It’s completely user generated.

The piece, about a child who suffers from Russell-Silver Syndrome, a rare form of dwarfism, lives on CNN’s iReport.com. The month-old portal gives users the opportunity to post stories they deem newsworthy, and incorporates dialog starters like blogs and twitters. In beta, it’s an extension of CNN’s iReport, which gives viewers a place to submit CNN-vetted eyewitness accounts of breaking news. It plans to have some of the segments make their way to CNN or cnn.com.

“We can learn a lot [this way] about what people think is important in their world,” said Susan Grant, evp of CNN News Service.

According to Compete, an online research firm, in February, iReport.com had 34,250 unique visitors.

Unedited by corporate brass, the site is one of the latest efforts from a TV network to create online communities that deepen ties with viewers — in turn giving them a say in what we watch on our screens. Other networks have already embarked on, or are planning, similar initiatives.

CBS, which has pages on MySpace and Facebook, will begin rolling out online communities over the next six months with tools for increased interactivity. The second-ranked network already operates several online communities on cbs.com, like the one for cult favorite Jericho. That show’s expected demise was warded off by fans who reached out to CBS via the Web site and e-mails to rally support for the program.

Anthony Soohoo, svp and general manager of entertainment at CBS Interactive, said CBS wants to create a dialog with its viewers that goes beyond the posting of clips and the occasional online forum, though he would not elaborate on specific plans. “We’re placing a big bet on communication, and communities are a big part of our overall content strategy,” he said.

ABC Entertainment relaunched an online community group it refers to as The Inner Circle late last year. Initially created three years ago as a marketing tool, it was brought back to life with the help of social-networking software enabler Passenger. The company built an online community that allows ABC to engage with select users in several ways, such as asking for feedback on previews of shows, promos and how they feel about the network as a brand.

Michael Benson, evp of marketing for ABC Entertainment, explained, “It started out as a marketing tool and became a research tool. Now it’s kind of a combination of both.” The conversation it creates between users and the network, he added, directly impacts marketing strategies. For instance, ABC learned about the Internet habits of some of Lost‘s biggest fans. “That helped us design much more rich and robust marketing strategies on multiple platforms for that show,” he said.

The platform initiates dialog only twice a month. And currently, there’s no tool for “club” members — recruited via things such as e-mail invitations and banner ads — to share feedback with each other, though that may change in the future.

Passenger’s Justin Cooper, chief innovation and marketing officer, said the company has since been asked to build similar platforms for ABC properties’ Buena Vista Entertainment, ABC Daytime and ABC Home Entertainment.

What remains to be seen is the extent to which the networks can leverage these communities to generate ad sales and/or marketing sponsorships.