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Web more than PR tool

Viewers use PCs while watching TV

While Showtime became the first pay cabler to jump onto the World Wide Web in 1995, it wasn’t until the next year that the network discovered many viewers have their PCs and TVs in the same room.

When, in an effort to experiment with the new medium, Showtime informed viewers during the live pay-per-view Mike Tyson-Frank Bruno fight in 1996 that they could score the bout online, company execs were shocked when parent Viacom’s Web servers were overloaded with requests.

“We thought at the time, ‘How many people with PCs will actually do this?’ ” says Mark Greenberg, Showtime’s executive VP, corporate strategy and communications. “But, we just blew through every server Viacom had. This allowed us to wonder, ‘OK, how do we better use these two devices together?’ ”

Soon, Showtime realized millions of current and potential subscribers were indeed multi-tasking with cable and the Net.

So now the Web site, which had initially been created solely as a promotional vehicle to hype premium programs, had a mission to become a successful model for enhancing viewers’ small screen experience with the interactive content of the PC screen.

Today, the site regularly features streaming “Webisodes” of original animation programs, such as “Starship Regulars” as well as short films starring Chris Elliot and Hilary Swank, behind-the-scenes footage of its shows and online chats with their stars.

In 1997, Showtime offered video streaming of an Evander Holyfield fight and two years later took it one step further by offering a Webcast of the Tyson-Orlin Norris contest complete with five movable cameras and audio feeds from the fighters’ corners.

But, boxing hasn’t been the site’s only arena to test the efficacy of the technology. Showtime’s original sci-fi series “Stargate SG-1” makes use of ACTV’s HyperTV software to give viewers online enhancements that are synchronized to appear on the users’ computers during key points of the televised program.

“There are many of us who want a passive experience to just watch sit back and enjoy a show from the couch,” Greenberg says, “but there are others that want to be engaged and be able to play along with the show.”

Earlier this year, the network debuted its first Alternative Media Festival on its offshoot site alt.SHO.com to encourage the development of digital films by offering a high-profile viewing venue for animators and budding directors — and $10,000 checks.

In an effort to reach out to the new audience of Gen. Y-ers, who are more likely than most unhip adults to be simultaneously surfing online and via the TV remote control, Showtime has formed an alliance with short-form leader AtomShockwave to offer original animated films on the newly created ShowtimeNext multiplex channel and complementary Web site. More than 50 of AtomShockwave’s short films are now available exclusively on the site.

“As programmers, if we can offer a sense of community for viewers to participate in, that’s what it’s all about,” Greenberg says. “That’s where we see the power of the Web. It’s a way for people to be involved in a very interactive way. But, we’re still at a very embryonic stage here.”