TV and Interactive: Where’s the Missing Link?

There seems to be a periodic collective rush toward TV and interactive convergence. Online video is sizzling, and the past week has brought announcements from one corporate heavy hitter after another that the rush is on (again). The goal is to effectively link, literally or stylistically, the small screen with the even smaller ones on PCs and mobile devices. All these new efforts are, naturally, for marketing and advertising.

Yahoo’s trying to resuscitate “The Runner,” which never made it out of development at ABC, as an online series that’s updated in real time rather than strictly episodically. CBS thinks it can get viewers to watch on-air commercials (and possibly, more CBS programming) by slipping a Pontiac-sponsored microseries dubbed “The Courier” between ad spots. The series will be available online and for mobile devices.

Parenthetically, Fox has just recommissioned a new series of appallingly monikered “mobisodes” to play on the Verizon’s mobile video platform. The 96 new two-minute episodes support the hit series “24.”

And Amazon, meanwhile, just announced it’s gearing up a classic half-hour, old-school, live (!) talk show starring Bill Maher. “Amazon Fishbowl” will be a TV clone, adhering to a standard late-night format, only viewers will be able to click to buy the book, DVD, or CD the weekly guest is flogging. UPS, the launch sponsor, will “air” commercials in which celebrities deliver packages to surprised Amazon customers (a promotion that’s been going on for some time).

The Good, The Bad, The Ridiculous

All these projects are attempting to break new ground, and there are some strong commonalities between most of them.

“Amazon Fishbowl” excepted, all are short in format, long on storytelling, and reliant on cliffhanger endings. Advertainment, sponsorships, and/or product placement loom large in all but Fox’s mobisodes (intended to support only the broadcast TV offering).

And not a little disturbingly, all these new experiments in programming are born of TV, not spawned by the Web or other interactive media. Yahoo’s “The Runner” is based on a series ABC developed but never green-lighted. CBS plans to retrofit “The Courier” to a Web site (with some additional material) and mobile platforms, too, but is producing it for TV; like “The Runner,” it’s based on a never-realized reality series. Fox’s mobisodes are short takes with the actors from the TV series it supports (the new B-roll?). And Amazon’s offering seems to be attempting to graft a TV show onto its Web site with no embellishments other than click-to-buy or learn-more features.

Sight unseen, as none of these projects have debuted, here’s my take on the strengths and weaknesses of this major new crop of offerings:

  • “The Runner.” Yahoo’s show will center on a runner who travels the country as viewers try to capture him and claim a prize. Yahoo Media Group head Lloyd Braun, whose professed goal is to create the Web’s first hit entertainment, has lobbed the project over to Mark Burnett Productions, the outfit that brought you such sponsor-rich shows and affiliated Web content as “The Apprentice” and “INXS Rock Star.”

    Yahoo will update “Runner” content in real time, in addition to regularly scheduled episodes, according to “Wall Street Journal” sources. That’s good — that’s what publishing (or broadcasting) on the Web should be in this time-shifting day and age. The show can potentially leverage and encourage use and exploration of other Yahoo areas, from maps to local search to RSS (define) feeds. That opens up a lot of ad and sponsorship possibilities. Yahoo’s challenge, in addition to determining a reasonable budget for an online program, is to attract sponsors that can be seamlessly integrated into the narrative and to get Web users to tune in. The heavily interactive element and potential to win prizes won’t hurt.

  • “The Courier.” CBS hopes “The Courier” will (in 60 seconds or less) not only induce audiences to soldier through commercial breaks but also become so engaged in a protagonist’s death-defying efforts to rescue his kidnapped wife they’ll even tune in tomorrow to endure a primetime CBS show they hadn’t planned to watch — just to find out what happens. Pontiac, the sponsor, will feature its Torrent in three episodes. A Torrent commercial also airs after each spot. After episodes air, they’ll be available on CBS.com, along with additional video and text content and clues for a Torrent sweepstakes (Verizon Wireless V CAST subscribers will be able to watch, too).

    If there’s a winner here, it’s Pontiac. I’ve spoken with Mark-Hans Richter, Pontiac’s director of marketing, about the company’s involvement in “The Apprentice” and “Survivor,” both online and off-. Pontiac’s seen “spectacular results” with these efforts. But why CBS thinks anyone in a DVR world would stay tuned in to commercials, much less tune in later, for content that will be available (with embellishments) on the Web is completely beyond me. With the exception of driving awareness on the first night it airs, the broadcast element of this strategy seems perfectly superfluous.

  • “Amazon Fishbowl.” Back when I worked in TV, interactive was synonymous with “Jennifer Aniston’s sweater.” Remember? The idea was you’d be watching “Friends” while buying the shirt off Ms. A’s back, so to speak.

    That’s exactly what Amazon seems to be up to with “Fishbowl.” It’s doing a talk show with a well-known talk show host. The twist is that on Amazon, you can click to browse or buy whatever the guest is selling. It’s stunning that it took the media group this long to come up with an idea so woefully short on originality and so unadapted to any interactive media beyond e-commerce functionality. Can viewers ask the guests questions? It seems unnecessary to stream the show live (against Jon Stewart, no less) before making the archive available to customers (audience?) on their own time and in their own terms. Given the show airs weekly rather than daily, my bet is it’ll get the same guys making the talk show circuit. Why would you lean forward with Bill at 11 p.m. when you could lie back with Jay, Dave, or Conan?

  • Fox’s mobisodes. We’ll have to assume they’re a success, given the network just commissioned 96 new episodes for the fifth season of “24.” It can’t hurt the show, of course. But with an infinitesimal 500,000 U.S. mobile video viewers (out of 193.6 million mobile phone subscribers), according to Yankee Group, you have to wonder how much it helps.

Now that I’ve critiqued the concepts, I’m looking forward to the executions. The race to invent TV for the Web is more exciting to watch than anything that’s been broadcast on real TV in a long, long time.

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