Web buzz keeps auds hooked on hot dramas

For an increasing number of TV lovers, watching a favorite show is no longer merely an hour or half-hour commitment every week.

Thanks to the Internet, a show’s shelf-life now extends days after an episode’s premiere for shows that lend themselves to obsessive online discussion and analysis.

In particular, drama series with underlying mysteries (think “Mad Men,” “Damages”), fantasy elements (“Lost,” “Fringe” and “FlashForward”) or soapy storylines (“Grey’s Anatomy,” “Gossip Girl”) spur endless commentary from bloggers and couch-potato pundits. Call it the viral watercooler effect.

The impetus for fans to head to the Web or to Twitter to parse every detail is a programmer’s dream come true. It marks a level of engagement — in some cases, devotion — that TV execs couldn’t have dreamed of even a few years ago. The 24/7 presence of independent online shrines for selected skeins only enhances the sense of buzz about a show and helps ensure more people will make a point to tune in next week.

Michael Benson, exec VP of marketing for ABC, traces his experience with such fan interactivity to the viral website dedicated to Oceanic Airlines the network established after the first season of “Lost.”

“Within a couple of days, the site received a million hits,” Benson says, adding that the level of engagement has gotten people who work on the shows interested as well.

“Right now you have people in marketing and even producers showing interest in these sites,” Benson says. “We want to hear what the fans are saying.”

Sometimes such fan engagement can help keep a show on the air. “Gossip Girl’s” rabid online following raised the show’s profile in its first season far beyond what its Nielsen numbers would suggest, and CW is seeing online buzz build for its frosh success story “The Vampire Diaries.”

Hiram Norman, VP of production and design for digital media at Warner Bros. Television Marketing, says it’s important to find the places on the Web where fans of a show will be — sites that might feature music or style, for instance — and to insert the show in some way into those sites. “We looked at building an audience as a daily exercise,” he says.

The tradition of the fan-generated episode guide goes back to the days before the Web. But nowadays episode recaps for series like “Mad Men” and “Lost” are no mere quick rundowns of major plot developments. They’re often a cross between literary criticism and discourses in conspiracy theory. On the most popular blogs and websites, comments on a recap can easily pass the 300 mark within 48 hours, and many of them raise new theories or challenge the reasoning behind the original thread.

Fans do their homework based on every available clue.

A major plot point on “Mad Men” this season was uncovered by commenters on the “What’s Alan Watching” blog, written by the Newark Star-Ledger’s TV critic Alan Sepinwall. When an intriguing male character had a seemingly fleeting introduction as “Connie” from “San Antonio, New Mexico,” fans went to work and quickly surmised that it had to be hotel magnate Conrad Hilton. Sure enough, three episodes later, Don Draper’s chance meeting with the man he didn’t recognize to be Hilton figured into the storyline.

AMC’s sr. VP of marketing, Linda Schupack says the rare instance of an upcoming plot being exposed “is part of the sport of the conversation.”(Even ABC News’ White House correspondent Jake Tapper offers a weekly “Mad Men” think piece on his ABCNews.com blog otherwise devoted to D.C. politics. “Every episode of ‘Mad Men’ makes me want to down a martini and smoke a Lucky Strike,” Tapper confessed on his Twitter feed in August.)

With so much free promo potential at stake, network execs are working hard to give fans reasons to go online to yak about their shows. ABC execs are working hard to stoke Internet activity on the net’s new “FlashForward.”

Drawing from a major element of the show, which revolves around the FBI’s investigation of a mysterious worldwide blackout in which people see visions of the future, the network built a “Join the Mosaic” site that is a Facebook/chat board hybrid. It allows fans to sign up and share moments in their life and follow what other members have said and added as well.

ABC carefully monitors Facebook and Twitter pages devoted to the show, in addition to “FlashForward”-related traffic on Google, Yahoo and online boards, Benson says.

Still, the best way to indicate the level of interest in a show is from fan sites that spring up organically, rather than site created virally by marketing departments. Norman and Schupak agree that a big part of the process is making sure things develop on their own and that a fan isn’t overexposed to various viral campaigns.

“We definitely do what we can to get our audience interested in the show on our own,” Norman says. “But it has to be organic, and some things just can’t be forced.”

ABC’s Benson adds that for some shows, establishing a dedicated Intenet site simply isn’t possible.

“You can’t do it for every show. … We’ve tried it with other programs, but the trick to the whole thing is seeing how the audience is responding,” Benson says. “Look at ‘Modern Family’: All you (can) say is something like ‘that’s the funniest show on TV,’ but where do you go after that? That’s all you really need to say sometimes.”

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