MTV set to create virtual world online

The network that gave us “The Real World” is going virtual.

MTV will create a virtual universe for a number of its properties that will let users play along with its shows on the Web. Announcement is expected today.

Starting this week, users will be able to inhabit characters from “Laguna Beach,” making choices and living out consequences parallel to the show in the manner of other virtual communities.

As the season progresses, MTV programmers will unlock certain levels, allowing users to advance through the game just as characters lives’ progress on the show.

Play will typically take place in multiplayer, networked environments.

Other skeins and MTV properties are eventually expected to become part of the virtual program.

Company has emphasized that the offering is not a videogame — traditional notions of winning and losing don’t apply — though it does share some similarities with vidgames.

Program could bring Web and television together in ways that go beyond traditional licensing. Net hopes the marriage of TV’s high production values with the interactivity of the Web will lure consumers.

Move comes as Wall Streeters have said Viacom has not been as nimble as competitors like News Corp. in the digital realm, with that factor cited by some as a reason for the ankling of former topper Tom Freston. But this project was in development for many months, and company emphasized that its announcement is not related to Freston’s departure.

Despite isolated success on its online extension Overdrive, MTV has not had the off-the-charts success on the Web that it’s enjoyed for years as a cable net.

Though it offers bonus scenes and material, site is regarded more as a conventional broadband net than an all-consuming destination that can compete with a phenom like News Corp.’s MySpace.

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