It's probably no revelation that the TV- show Web sites with the biggest audiences are also the ones with the most fervid, fevered fans of the hottest series, with Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and Survivor topping the list.
There are few prime time programs on broadcast and cable networks that don't have companion sites online as part of the respective network site, pushing video clips, up-close-and-personal cast bios or merchandise tied to the show.
They're logical extensions of the franchises broadcasters and cable nets hope to build on with every production they put up. Mega-hits like NBC's Seinfeld naturally develop a Web following. However, NBC's innovative approach with the hit drama Homicide, producing a parallel plot line with a separate cast of characters online, fell flat.
Notwithstanding the innate appeal some popular TV dramas and comedies have to create cultish counterparts on the Web, the real deal for drawing surfers to shows lies in enabling a parallel game-show experience or playing off the mesmerizing power of TV pulp reality.
More than 8 million PC players have logged on to see if they could answer Regis Philbin's Millionaire queries in a real-time play-along version that ABC.com introduced on its site earlier this year. That online version of the game draws an average of 100,000 to 150,000 players nightly, according to Jonathan Leess, vice president of ABC Interactive, who sees the network's wildly popular prime time quiz show as a critical vehicle for a Web companion site. "Millionaire is the perfect show for this kind of thing," he says. "The fun in this is not to play along with the show but to compare how you're doing with all those competing."
Playing along is the key to the show's Web success-either with Regis' contestants or other online competitors. Most of the time, the prizes are T-shirts, hats, bags and CD-ROM games. But ABC.com has seen spikes beyond the average participation numbers during special promotions, as it did in May when the top scorers won 12 Mazda Tribute SUVs each night over a two-week span.
ABC has also drawn some viewer response to its enhanced-TV treatment of Monday Night Football, with the Sept. 4 season opener drawing 175,000 PC users plugging in online for additional stats and other material during the game.
"It's for folks who just can't get enough of whatever they're dishing up," says independent media analyst Gary Arlen, who calls the enhanced-TV content "an acquired taste."
Sony Pictures' online unit has had some success with its Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune sites-in addition to interest generated by play-along WebTV versions of the game shows. But Sony is reluctant to indicate anything about traffic related to game-playing online.
Sony makes a special splash with Wheel during the sweeps periods and, last May, offered a million dollars in prizes in a promotion that boosted traffic nearly 1,000% over normal levels, according to Audrey Marco, vice president and general manager for Sony Pictures.
Sony Online-an aggregate of several sites-drew 4.7 million visitors in June and 5.3 million visitors in July, according to numbers from Media Metrix.
Apart from big game shows, the programs with the biggest appeal to Web devotees are the latest genre of reality shows, with viewer interest in the on-air drama creating a corresponding draw for fans who just can't get enough of the TV episodes.
CBS.com witnessed a dramatic spike in traffic during the summer run of its runaway hit Survivor. Approximately 2.3 million visitors went to the site in May-pre-Survivor-compared with 3.3 million visitors in June and a whopping 5.15 million in July as Survivor steadily gained momentum in TV ratings, according to numbers from Media Metrix.
CBS established a small Los Angeles-based Web-site production team to coordinate with the show's producers on releasing updates about each episode, bios and archived video clips that proved to be a very big draw. CBS.com averaged more than 20 page views per visit during June, sparked largely by Survivor-mania, according to David Katz, CBS vice president of strategic planning and interactive ventures.
"A lot of that was driven by people wanting to get to know the survivors themselves a little better. The Web site became the only place where you could find the full account of the tribal voting history, the full final words at each banishment and other things," says Katz.
And Web surfers ate it up, descending on the site in droves in anticipation of each week's episode on Tuesday and Wednesday and seeking updates and other material immediately following the episode on Wednesday night and Thursday.
CBS is expecting another-albeit smaller-spike in traffic on its site with the reruns of Survivor this month and is planning a chat room and one or two games for the Survivor II site, according to Katz.
But sites like Survivor.com cater to the rabid viewer who just can't get enough, according to Arlen: "They're for hardcore fans of any program who want more, more, more. This is the electronic equivalent of trading cards and comic books."
That other CBS reality series, Big Brother, has also bred a faithful following on the Web, where Brother boosters can watch round-the-clock video feeds of their favorite housebound contestants between episodes. The site, developed by America Online in cooperation with CBS, drew 3.8 million users in August, according to Nielsen NetRatings numbers, and attracted 8.5 million visitors between its July 5 debut and Sept. 10-representing more than 8% of all Net users.
It has been the single most popular feature on the new high-speed AOL Plus service, according to Heather Perram, executive producer for BigBrother2000.com, who claims some users spend hours watching the online video feeds, boosting the average time spent on the site to 10 to 12 minutes.
Thousands of video clips are also stashed on the site, according to Perram, who directs a staff of 15 writers and technicians who maintain the content on the site. AOL has been boosting traffic by Webcasting chat sessions with banished housemates-one (housemate Brittany) recently drew 53,000 chatters-and through message boards for Brother fans. "They're so rabid," says Perram. "They're absolutely dedicated to the show. They know the rules almost as [well] as the house guests do."
As surreal as it may seem, Big Brother's success suggests how broadcasters can use the Web to capitalize on viewers who can't get enough of their favorite shows.