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TV goes interactive on the Web

It gives new meaning to the notion of You tube.

That's because, while the Internet's always been a haven for die-hard TV fans -- what with message boards and list servs, recap pages and fan sites -- these days, the TV-Internet relationship is more tightly intertwined than ever.

Alternate-reality stories and games. The creation of virtual communities.

Fans of "Heroes" can try to "save the cheerleader, save the world" via a "Heroes 360 Experience." And devotees of "The Tyra Banks Show" can chat with an animated version of the supermodel-turned-talk-show host in her Internet "lounge."

Call it a brave new world.

Or, if you're like MTV's Matt Bostwick, call it the future of television.

"This is about taking viewers to the next level," says Bostwick, senior vice president of franchise development for MTV.

"When TV's connected to a virtual community, then there's content flowing in and out."

In other words, the television experience doesn't start (or stop) with your remote.

"Virtual Laguna Beach" appeared online in 2005, a year after "Laguna Beach," the popular reality show about rich Orange County teens first aired on MTV. Then, in 2006, "Virtual Hills" -- inspired by "The Hills," a television spinoff of "Laguna Beach" -- launched.

Confused? Don't be. Think of visits to the two linked sites as akin to strolls by your online alter-ego -- also know as an avatar -- in an alternate, video game-like universe. You navigate shopping malls, beaches and clubs of a computerized SoCal beach town -- interacting with a community as you go.

"It's about going deeper -- so deep that users are living separate lives online," says Bostwick, on the phone from his Manhattan office.

"There's chat, instant messaging, 'hanging out' in (virtual) clubs ...," he says. "It's a very complex environment."

Of course, TV other worlds on the Web aren't new. In what now seems like the dark ages, fans of "Twin Peaks" used Internet bulletin boards and e-mail lists to pore over all the endless twists and turns of the surreal drama.

In the late '90s, TV enthusiasts started turning to TelevisionWithoutPity.com and other such site for exhaustive rundowns of shows, and major networks set up message boards where fans could congregate.

Now, in 2007, virtual TV-inspired communities are all the rage -- and they're going through a major growth spurt.

Blame it on the young, says Tim Stevens, president of the San Francisco-based Doppelganger, creator of such virtual worlds as the Music Lounge -- home of "The Tyra Banks Virtual Studio."

"Kids are moving away from TV in droves -- gone are the days when they'd sit and stare at a TV program," Stevens says. "It's now about interactivity and communicating in real time -- MySpace and YouTube are perfect examples of this.

"If you look at instant messaging and texting -- that's how teens define entertainment," Stevens adds. "They want to hang out and play games and chat and be part of a social community."

They also want the chance to stand out.

And TV-inspired online worlds offer a very "individualizing" experience, says Christy Dena, who has studied the medium's boom extensively.

"Everyone has his or her own preference for how to experience (a show)," says Dena, who is working on her Ph.D. in cross-media entertainment at the School of Letters, Art and Media in Sydney, Australia.

She points to "Homicide: Life on the Street" as one of the first shows to push outside the TV box, with a 1999 "crossover episode" featuring a Webcast murder case that invited viewers to log on and try to solve the mystery.

"It was extremely well done and well written," Dena says.

More important, she adds, the process invited viewers to "populate" the show's online world by digging into its back story, unearthing facts and interacting with characters.

In the years since, she says, virtual communities have evolved into a hybrid of stories and games, and are easy enough for anyone to figure out, whether they watch the show or not.

Indeed, the ones that work best, she says, "appeal to different audiences."

And wallets.

That's right -- you can use real money, for instance, to buy a "can" of Pepsi from a virtual vending machine on sites such as "Virtual Laguna" for your alter-ego to drink.

And just so we're clear here -- you in the real world don't get any soda at all.

So while the deeper, philosophical question here may be "why?!," the marketing possibilities are, says MTV's Bostwick, endless.

"We're moving people from the idea of just seeing an ad to actually interacting with the brand," he says. "We integrate products (into the story lines). It's the best advertising in the world."

And even if you can resist making virtual impulse purchases, TV's counterpart on the Internet has, inarguably, become a major ready-for-prime-time player.

"All of this is about us reaching into the (TV) world," Dena says, "and the fictional world reaching back into ours."

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