Networks aim for rabid fan base on the Web

“How I Met Your Mother” loves the Internet.

Last fall, the flagging CBS/20th Century Fox sitcom created an anonymous MySpace page honoring fictional pop star Robin Sparkles. When Sparkles was introduced on the show’s Nov. 20 episode, the MySpace page attracted 5,000 new friends — and the show snagged more than 1 million new viewers.

So when it came time to strategize this year’s Emmy campaign, 20th’s senior VP of marketing, Steven Melnick, turned to an old friend.

“There’s no better way to understand a show than to see it in the context of the fans,” Melnick says. Which is why, instead of sending traditional screener DVDs, Fox is presenting the show on the home turf of its most rabid fan base: the Web.

During awards season, the studio will stream full episodes of “How I Met Your Mother,” as well as original online content, on the show’s MySpace page. Emmy voters, it hopes, will find the material by following tags on TV and print ads.

Of course, providing TV shows online is not new this year. All five of the major networks stream shows on their home sites and sell them as downloads via iTunes and Amazon’s Unbox. But taking Emmy campaigns to the Internet is still virgin territory.

Last year, CBS-Paramount tried it with “CSI,” posting actors’ clips online. Not a single actor received a nomination. This year, the studio is trying again, using print ads to drive audiences to an online multiplex that streams all their programs, scripted and reality, in their entirety.

“You have to stand out if you want to have any impact,” says CBS VP of communication Phil Gonzalez, the architect (along with Lauri Metrose, CBS-Paramount’s VP of publicity) behind the studio’s new “environmentally conscious” campaign strategy.

CBS’ Emmy site, TheGreenCampaign.com, bills itself as “putting our green where it counts.” By scrapping the usual barrage of DVDs, the effort is not only saving money CBS would’ve spent on production and postage, it’s also saving trees.

Online screenings have other advantages as well.

“There’s freedom to being able to watch a show online,” Melnick says. “People watch from their computer at home or at the office. They don’t have to carry around a DVD.”

Web viewing also allows companies to track how many people actually watch, an impossibility when mailing DVDs in bulk.

“You’re getting more feedback on your return on investment,” Gonzalez says. “We’ll know if people are watching and how it improved from last year.”

The question remains, will anyone watch? Are Academy viewers ready for screener campaigns that remove TV from its traditional habitat?

“I spend so much time in front of the computer as is, I don’t want to sit there more than I have to,” says Emmy voter David Pires. “Plus, you’re not going to get the best picture, the best sound, the best (sense of) how it was intended to be viewed.”

CBS’s Chris Ender, senior VP of communications, disagrees.

“Most people are getting comfortable watching programs online,” Ender says. “With the advances in digital over the past couple years, the quality of online streaming is quite good.”

As more film and television viewing transitions from traditional media to the Internet, it stands to reason that screeners will follow suit. But for viewers like Pires, watching television anywhere other than a television set will take some convincing.

“If they’re putting it online, they’re only hurting themselves,” Pires says. “Just show me good work. That’s what I want to see.”

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more