Monday, December 17, 2007

Battle of the Network Webstars: Evaluating the "Big Four's" websites

There's a lot of cool stuff on network websites - but does it deliver anything new to the user - or the advertiser?

In the past couple of years, the major networks have been sprucing up their web sites, in an effort to keep them, shall we say, new media compliant. When I used to develop sites for TV shows (back in 2005 or so), not much was needed to be seen as relevant and informative. You could create a seemingly "complete" site with sections for cast bios, episode guides and a trailer for “next week’s episode”. Today, full episode streams, blogs, widgets, and even tag clouds are the norm. But has all the 2.0 bling actually improved the user experience and the ever elusive site stickiness? And perhaps more importantly, have all the new gizmos made these destinations better places to market your product? I recently spent some time visiting the web portals for the big four (ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox) to answer some of these questions for myself.
Here's what I found:

Virtually all the network web sites now contain full episode streams with limited commercial interruptions. But despite the opportunity to own mindshare (at least, for 30 minutes) and truly engage the user, few advertisers actually took advantage of it. Most full episode streams featured the same 30 second spot, shown during each commercial break, with a banner or other ad unit adjacent (rarely with a compelling call to action).

As mentioned, network webmasters have clearly been reading all the buzz about web 2.0, and have been feverishly incorporating it into their portals. But some shows are more gizmo friendly than others. For example, I can see placing a widget on my Facebook page with a constant feed of new SNL sketch content . But I’m less excited about one that promises all “the latest dirt” on Jericho (full disclosure: I’m an SNL fan). And I couldn’t quite see the point of those tag clouds for the Amazing Race, though I do like the idea of giving superfans the outlet of an Amazing Race wiki.

The most interesting surprise was the web exclusive content. Much was simply repurposed from on air segments, but several of the networks are beginning to produce online only episodic series. And some of them aren’t even that awful. For example, despite the uber-cheesiness of “Coastal Dreams” (an online soap from, I did find myself watching it through not just one but three commercial breaks (and cheese or no, isn’t that the point?). And it certainly beat the pants off of any of the original content on Youtube or the hot UGC destinations.
Finally, even though the network sites offered many of the same features, they did vary from one another in several key areas. Here’s a summary of what I found in my recent deep dive into the nets of the networks:

What makes it special:
ABC was the first to do full episode streaming, and since then, all the other networks have pretty much embraced their model. But, for my money, their player is still the best: giant picture size, limited clutter, great picture quality.
I was also intrigued by “Start Now”: a series of cleverly designed icons, that tell the user where (aside from on TV) each program is available: online, wireless, ipod, etc. More than just convenient, it positions their programming not as TV shows but as episodic content available wherever and however you want it –forseeing exactly where this market is going.

An objective measure, but that beautiful player does keep me watching, even through some of my less favorite programming like “Samantha Who”. But, I didn’t see much (or any) original content, unlike the other networks

Advertiser friendliness:
Audio/video ad spots automatically played on the home page, which I found a bit annoying – however, I suppose that’s just the intrusiveness advertisers are looking for. But I did see some missed opportunities on the site: Extreme Makeover, which should have been littered with hundreds of “available ats”, merely listed out sponsors' products, with little detail, and no information on how to get them, and all well below the fold.
The player ads were also a little disappointing. I’ve seen some really cool interactive ads during ABC’s episode streaming, but here was just the same 30 second ad, over and over again. Even if you don’t want to bother with interactivity, these players seem to offer an ideal venue for a narrative series (“scenes from a scrubbing bubble marriage: a tale in three parts?”) that would engage the viewer in a way TV ads never could.
What Makes it Special
Those web exclusives, mentioned above. I particularly enjoyed Pale Force, the animated series from Conan O’Brian. And as I mentioned, Coastal Dreams was better than I expected and bordered on guilty pleasure status. But this isn’t surprising, as NBC was something of a pioneer web content, a la SNL digital shorts on iTunes.
Additionally, overall, just seems a little more content rich than the other web sites.

Aside from the wide variety of content, NBC’s reality/game programming lends itself beautifully to the web and can cause a user to waste hours on the site. Particularly insidious is the “Deal or No Deal” online game based on the show’s premise – which I understand is the one of’s most popular features.

Advertiser Friendliness:
All that content provides great sponsorship opportunities, but’s strength is also a weakness. The home page packs so much in that it feels cluttered, making the ads a little more difficult to find vs., say,’s.
Also, the NBC player gives advertisers a wide berth, plenty of space to include either full screen ads or a video ad with adjacent interactive banners . Of all the networks, however, this is the only one that appeared to include ads from more than one sponsor not only during the show, but within a single break.
What Makes It Special:
Though a little buried, actually seemed to have more original web programming than anyone else, ranging from a low budget soap to a redneck cooking show to an “Apprentice” clone reality show. Given the average age of the CBS viewer (which I believe is around 60), this came as quite a surprise. And the CBS webmasters have done their 2.0 homework, with blogs, wikis, and widgets galore – but do those 60 year olds even know what any of those things are? Some explanation would be useful, or maybe even a reason to click on all this stuff.

No hit game shows to copy on the web, so those addictive little games like “Deal or No Deal” are missing. And the player, with it’s small screen and clutter-y cross –sell, doesn’t make me want to spend an afternoon with it. However, with the writers strike shutting down more shows every day, maybe all that original web programming may keep an audience coming back.

Advertiser Friendliness:
The home page is nicely laid out and only has one primary sponsor, who dominates the page with a gigantic leaderboard that eventually collapses into a thin header. The player, however, leaves a lot to be desired. The video space is small and competes with all that cross sell, and there’s no timer for the commercials- and personally, knowing there are just a few seconds left keeps me watching through these annoying but necessary interruptions.
What Makes It Special
If anything, the Fox site is noteworthy for what it doesn’t have. No web originals, no fancy wikis or widgets – an ironic twist, given how aggressive Fox has been in the new media space, with its many acquisitions, mobisodes, and the like. It does, however, render the site a bit less cluttered and easier to navigate than the other networks’.

As mentioned, gizmos do not necessarily equal stickiness, and the lack of them was not a problem for me. Fox’s clean design equaled easy navigation and an invitation to stay for awhile. Other pluses were its slick media player and addictive “Smarter than a Fifth Grader” game. However, there was little in the way of special content or activities for obsessive fans of say, Family Guy (like myself), which would have kept me there a lot longer.

Advertiser Friendliness
Fox’s uncluttered interface helps the few ads there to stand out even more. However, the Fox site missed the same opportunities – purchase links to iTunes, interactive or narrative player ads , etc. – as the others.

Overall, the network sites have evolved dramatically in the last few years. Once merely the go to place for show schedules and cast bios, they now attract and keep viewers with extensive video content, original series, and involving games and 2.0 activities. And there are some great opportunities for aggressive, creative advertisers, even if they’re not all being taken advantage of yet. Maybe someday those ads will be as fun and entertaining as everything else on the sites.

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