Pre-Broadcast Webisodes as the New Marketing Tool

A web series run-up to ‘Harper’s Island’ tries to make a ratings difference.

Last Updated: April 13, 2009 @ 4:40 PM

When the mystery series "Harper’s Island" debuts on Thursday night, there’s more on the line than just another prime-time offering. CBS will be watching closely to see whether the web can serve as a new vehicle to create awareness for its broadcast shows — even before they air.

"Harper’s Island" is a 13-episode “close-ended” (think: ’70s-style miniseries like "Roots" and "Shogun") murder mystery on which one character will be killed off each week, with the killer unveiled at the end. But for the last three weeks, the show’s web companion, "Harper’s Globe" has been running online, with four episodes already launched.

Unlike “Island,” “Globe” is a steamy "social show" that delves into the world of Robin Matthews (Melanie Merkosky), a minor character on the TV series.  It’s produced by EQAL, the team that generated the popular “lonelygirl15.”

It’s also more than just a web series. The website itself is an interative experience for fans — it has daily content updates with characters from the show uploading videos and blogs and even a built-in social network that is already gaining some traction.

If it performs well, other networks may look to CBS’ model as a way to grab hold of an untapped sector of viewers.

So far, it seems to be doing its part. Though EQAL doesn’t reveal specific traffic figures, the company’s already noticed a "huge amount of engagement on the site," including tens of thousands of comments and discussions about the programs, said Miles Beckett, co-founder and CEO of EQAL. The videos themselves, hosted by YouTube, have had more than 300,000 views.

"Harper’s Island,” of course, is not the first show to have a serious web component — one that goes beyond just a video blog from a character or some extra deleted scenes.

The SciFi Channel’s "Battlestar Galactica," which ended its successful run in March, offered the 10-part, original "Battlestar Galactica: The Face of the Enemy” before the third season of the show — and the online series only further invigorated the viewership, said director Wayne Rose. “Heroes” has expanded on the television storyline with original graphic novels. (See other TV brand extensions on the web.)

But this is the first time webisodes have preceded the broadcast of the actual show and have been used as a key marketing tool, rather than just giving a bonus experience for a show’s already committed fans.

From the inception of  “Island," its creators knew the importance of an impassioned fan base: Both executive producer Jon Turteltaub and producer Dan Schotz worked on "Jericho." When that show was canceled, angered fans rallied behind the program on the web, coming together to send CBS thousands of pounds of peanuts to protest the network’s decision — a move that eventually got "Jericho" back on-air, if only for one more season.

(The peanuts were based on a brief line from the final episode, when the show’s hero Jake Green shouted "Nuts" to a rival town’s offer of surrender — repeating U.S. general Anthony C. McAuliffe response to German forces during World War II.)

"The whole ‘Jericho’ experience woke CBS up — all the nuts that they got clogging Les Moonves’ e-mail with fans requesting their show back,” Schotz said. “So we knew that when we were doing ‘Harper’s Island,’ we needed partners in bringing the show to the web. You have to think about this kind of thing now in the digital age. People aren’t watching TV in the same ways anymore."

Schotz and his team began seeking competent web producers, and they knew EQAL had a good track record — two of the company’s social dramas, “lonelygirl15” and “KateModern,” had racked up more than 150 million combined views online. For its part, EQAL was trying to sway TV execs by emphasizing the importance of networks becoming a part of the digital revolution.

"I was going around evangelizing that this is the future for TV, and if the networks didn’t engage people online, they were going to lose out to some 16-year-old kid in his bedroom," recalled Greg Goodfried, the co-founder, president and COO of EQAL. "I was trying to emphasize that if someone discovers content online, the likelihood of them watching the show skyrockets."

Bill Binenstock, vice president of CBS.com, agrees. "Other shows have partially extended their shows cross-platform — like when Kenneth the page blogs for ’30 Rock’ on NBC.com, it extends his character, and that’s sort of interesting. But when consumers online get to participate in a unique way and influence the show, there is an echo effect that builds both entities together and will drive viewership."

Despite the multitude of positive aspects at hand, many are still leery. EQAL’s Goodfried said he’s come up against misconceptions about the production value of online content. For good reason: Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick’s, Quarterlife," which started online, couldn’t meet primetime standards when it moved up to broadcast, and it quickly was pulled.

And even the online “Galactica” was a poor cousin to the actual series, even though the two were shot side by side. But Goodfried hopes to work past this. “I hope people watch this and say, ‘Talented and creative people can make a web series,’ and it’s not just because they couldn’t get a TV deal. That’s bulls–t," he said.

There have also been squabbles between the unions and talent over how people will be paid for content shown online versus on TV or in theaters — discrepancies “Galactica” director Rose believes will have to be smoothed out before web series become culturally pervasive.  

"Ultimately, I think everybody’s gonna be jumping on board because it’s such a great advertisement for the show and gives fans more of what they want," he said. "Nobody is sure exactly where this is gonna lead us, but nobody wants to miss the boat on web content." 

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