‘United States of Tara’ Adds Web Personality

Showtime creates online extension for series

In an attempt to draw loyal viewers deeper into its story line, Showtime has created an online extension of its series, The United States of Tara, based on a new character this season called Princess Valhalla Hawkwind. Tara was renewed last week for season three after its second-season premiere March 22.

Tara's daughter Kate meets a woman named Lynda P. Frazier, who years earlier had created the Princess Valhalla character. Kate discovers a fan site dedicated to all things Princess Valhalla and assumes that persona for a music video.

Showtime is recreating the site at PrincessValhallaHawkwind.com with material created by the show's writers. Content available online will include a downloadable comic book, and fan fiction and fan art based on the character. The entire music video, which only appears briefly on TV, will be posted in full at the site after its episode airs.

"It goes back to one of our objectives: How can we extend the show experience beyond the on-air time, trying to find as many touch points as we can?" says Robert Hayes, senior VP and general manager of digital media for Showtime. "But it has to feel organic."

It's an ever-welcome trend, as the March 22 Nielsen Three Screen Report makes clear. According to the report, which examined fourth quarter 2009, the number of viewers using the Internet while also watching TV was up 35% from the same period the previous year.

"Simultaneous cross-platform use is very real; it is the new norm," said Alan Wurtzel, president of NBC Universal Research and Media Development, speaking at the B&C/ Multichannel News TV Everywhere & Anywhere panel last week.

Such research is not lost on the networks, which seek to grab viewers on multiple screens. Last week, Bravo announced that its interactive Talk Bubble would become a weekly feature tied to The Real Housewives of New York, and Oxygen has found success with its Oxygen Live product.

Showtime will also try a greater Web tie-in with Nurse Jackie. One character, Dr. Cooper, will tweet the goings-on at the hospital while the show airs, encouraging fans to use their laptop or mobile device as they watch.

"The initial fear was that Internet and mobile video and entertainment would slowly cannibalize traditional TV viewing, but the steady trend of increased TV viewership alongside expanded simultaneous usage argues something quite different," said Nielsen Media Product Leader Matt O'Grady in the report.

Other networks have experimented with show blogs, or sites that exist in their television program's universe as well. NBC's The Office has a blog on its site "written by" the fictional office suck-up Dwight Schrute. Likewise, CBS' How I Met Your Mother is well known for featuring fake Websites on the show, encouraging fans to find them online. Among the sites created by the HIMYM writing team are a blog written by Neil Patrick Harris' character Barney Stinson, ItWasTheBestNightEver.com, which features a photo gallery and music video from a double date that took place on the show; and MarshallandLilyWedding.com, which includes photos and videos from the wedding and honeymoon of two main characters.

Likewise, Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert tweets in character while his show, The Colbert Report, airs on the network, often providing an added zing or two to an on-air joke.

Expanding the United States of Tara universe beyond the television set probably won't deliver much extra revenue for the network (At presstime, the site had house ads for Showtime sites), but it allows the show's writers to flex their creative muscles, while giving hard-core fans bonus content that keeps them engaged.

Wurtzel cited multiple research claiming that during the Vancouver Games, visitors to NBCOlympics.com who were also using social media sites such as Twitter or Facebook were far more engaged than visitors who were not.