TV Pros Tube Tied

Networks want to keep families gathered around the TV, but what about that Web thing?

You’d think the suits on Network Row would hate the Internet.

After all, no other medium has so completely captured the hearts and minds of consumers since … well, since television itself. Preliminary studies suggest that the more often younger consumers log on, the less likely they are to tune in.

The Web is bad. TV is good. Seems pretty simple. But despite tons of evidence that network television execs may be idiots — what else explains the decision to make “The Mike O’Malley Show”? — they’re not blind. Smart businessmen above all, they understand that sooner or later, the small screen and the Web will be joined together.

Problem is, nobody knows how or when the big bang known as convergence will happen. As a result, the Big Four have yet to develop any clear, consistent strategy regarding the ‘Net.

Consider the case of CBS and its two big reality shows of the summer, “Survivor” and “Big Brother.”

The island adventure “Survivor” mushroomed into a monster hit, becoming the most popular summer TV series ever. Not surprisingly, the show’s soap opera-like qualities made it a huge hit on the ‘Net as viewers rabidly sought out forums in which to trade dish about that evil bastard Richard or exchange information about which of the camera-hogging players would ultimately win the contest.

Web surfers who turned to Survivor.com, however, found the site of Survivor Software, a small company which makes financial software for Macs. Turns out the Eye network was too cheap (or perhaps too devoted to the concept of funneling all traffic through its cbs.com site) to buy out the domain name.

CBS even turned down the chance to buy a banner ad on Survivor.com which would have redirected surfers to the network’s own site.

Maybe CBS was actually doing its viewers a favor.

The official “Survivor” Web site (cbs.com/survivor) was a wasted opportunity, offering only a smattering of videoclips, few outtakes and no chat boards.

Anyone who wanted the real dirt on the show turned to the more entertaining (if not 100% reliable) survivorsucks.com, which had no official link whatsoever to CBS.

The CBS “Survivor” site was little more than a marketing tool, meant to drive ‘Net surfers to the small screen. By contrast, the Eye’s “Big Brother” site demonstrated the true possibilities of convergence.

The site, bigbrother2000.com, was touted frequently on every episode of the TV series. Round-the-clock Web cams inside the house, where 10 strangers lived up for up to three months, provided a compelling reason to visit the site after watching the show.

In fact, within a few weeks of “Big Brother’s” premiere, more people were buzzing about the site than the TV show. That shouldn’t be a surprise: The CBS show was a poorly-produced, badly-edited mess. Bigbrother2000.com, on the other hand, delivered the one thing that could ultimately make network television as we know it obsolete: TV-quality programming, on demand, to anyone with a broadband hookup.

The duality of CBS’ Web efforts this past summer — half-baked on “Survivor,” whole-hearted for “Big Brother” — pretty much sums up the short-term dilemma facing broadcasters. As they wait for TV and the Internet to close their inevitable merger, executives still aren’t completely sure whether to fully embrace the ‘Net (the “Big Brother” approach) or do everything in their power to keep eyeballs glued to the tube and away from the Web (the “Survivor” strategy).

There’s evidence the networks are moving toward the “Big Brother” model. NBC regularly uses content from its series to build traffic on its NBCi-operated Web sites, while the Peacock-owned MNSBC cabler (a joint venture with Microsoft) was an early pioneer in convergence. ABC’s news division has also moved quickly to leverage its brand power to build ABCNews.com into a ‘Net powerhouse. And this fall, Fox will launch a weekly drama about paranormal phenomena called “Freakylinks” that will be fully integrated with an Internet site of the same name.

Small steps, to be sure. Plenty of convergence possibilities are being left unexploited because of uncreative thinkers in executive corridors or due to paranoia about the Web’s potential power.

Smart executives, however, understand that a new medium need not kill its ancestors in order to thrive.

After all, movies didn’t destroy books — to the contrary. Likewise, television hasn’t stopped Americans from spending more and more money on the movies. And while cable has put a dent in network viewership, the Big Four just hauled in a record $8 billion-plus in upfront ad revenue.

Network TV and the Internet can similarly coexist, but the suits in power at ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox need to realize their longterm future depends not on slowing the Internet revolution, but by staying one step ahead of it.

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