Nets reach out to young viewers through interactive Web sites

If young people are fleeing television to go online, why not bring online to television?

That’s the calculus of a growing number of cable nets, which have been furiously adding interactive components in a bid to retain youthful viewers.

USA now has the MySpace-ish site ShowUsYourCharacter.co‘s shows by encouraging young people to craft an online personality via the site. The best user-submitted personae are chosen to appear on network interstitials.

Bravo’s cooking-reality skein “Top Chef” has become a hit among younger demos in part because it allows Time Warner cable subscribers to respond to culinary questions via remote control on their digital cable boxes. (The net is considering the experiment for other series.)

VH1 programming exec Michael Hirschorn predicts all his net’s shows will have a user-generated or interactive component before the year is out; already the net is allowing for play-along features for its summer skein “World Series of Pop Culture.”

Even GSN, typically an older-skewing net, is trying to lure youth with its Playmania strip, which allows viewers of various gameshows to play at home against TV contestants in real time, going onto the Web in synchronicity with the onscreen contestants.

With the growing clout of the blogging and vidgame generation — for whom the ability to manipulate entertainment is a given — execs say interactivity is a no-brainer.

But does it work? The technology of the TV set, after all, hardly exploits the potential for on-demand and interactivity as well as the Web does.

Making people toggle between the Web and TV has its limitations, admits GSN interactive exec John Roberts, who says perfect synthesis won’t be reached until nets can perfect the “one-screen approach.”

The track record so far isn’t overly persuasive.

USA’s ShowUsYourCharacter.com reportedly has not drawn robust traffic, likely because so many of its users are already on MySpace, which offers a more flexible interactivity than a site built around a few cable programs. (One network exec says he put just his name and no other information on ShowUsYourCharacter and found himself subjected, suspiciously, to a request for a date.)

But supporters say the form is a necessity, not a luxury, if TV is to remain a medium for the young.

“What we’re doing is necessary to compete in our audience’s world,” says Neil Tiles, prexy of young-male net G4 TV. “You can continue to put on scripted shows that start at 9 and end at 9:30, but the audience is going to walk away.”

G4 should know. On the cable net’s evening strip, Star Trek 2.0, a constantly updating Web bulletin board runs alongside the airing of “Star Trek” episodes, essentially bringing the Web and TV closer than ever.

And on pop-culture skein “Attack of the Show,” the net solicits video responses to the host’s comments and then, after users upload them to the show’s Web site, cleverly superimposes the videos atop mannequins inside the studio so the responses run practically in real time.

Interactivity has even penetrated news and politics, not typically the province of the young.

Current TV, the Al Gore-founded net that recently reached the 30 million-home mark, has staked its whole youth-oriented bet on interactivity.

While execs say they originally expected only 10% of Current’s programming to come from users, that number has now grown to 30%. Viewer pods on everything from bodybuilding in Afghanistan to a meditation on 20th-century art fill the net.

And Gotham’s all-news channel, the Time Warner-owned NY1, has a new primetime half-hour titled “The Call,” which gives viewers access to the same slate of stories as producers — and then lets viewers’ votes determine the night’s topics.

“Everyone in TV news is always wondering what the viewer wants, but no one thinks to really ask them,” says John Schiumo, the program’s effervescent host. “So we do.”

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