The Web Gets a Dose of Reality

SAN FRANCISCO (08/28/2000) - He outwitted, outplayed and outlasted his rivals, but Survivor winner Richard Hatch wasn't the favored bet. Visitors to CBS Corp.'s Survivor Web site predicted nearly five to one that Rudy, the 72-year-old retired Navy Seal, would go home with the million bucks.

As people logged on to voice their predictions, watch video footage of the castoffs and catch up on summaries of previous episodes, site traffic surged 115 percent from Tuesday, the day before the finale, to Wednesday, Nielsen NetRatings reported.

Survivor isn't the only reality show to hit it big online. Even Big Brother, whose television audience has lagged far behind that of Survivor, drew 5.4 million unique visitors in July, according to the Internet ratings measurement company. That's nearly as many as popular music site Napster, which had an audience of 5.7 million the same month.

Reality shows work particularly well online because they bridge the gap between information and entertainment. The Web "is about searching and finding things - news or whatever," says Jordan Kurzweil, Fox.com's senior VP of entertainment.

Reality shows "play off that curiosity."

And it's hard to overstate the power of curiosity. Indeed, the Survivor site was so busy immediately after the finale that 50 percent of visitors who tried to log on couldn't, according to Internet performance-measurement firm Keynote Systems.

Heavy traffic also made the Survivor Store, hosted by Hollywood.com Inc., inaccessible from the show site Wednesday and Thursday, says a Hollywood.com spokesman.

Fox's Kurzweil cites Jennicam as an early example of the irresistible appeal of online voyeurism. In 1996 a young woman named Jenni set up a Webcam in her room and left it on. Visitors flocked to see her eating, sleeping, watching TV and fooling around with her boyfriend. Jennicam, adds Kurzweil, "played off people being able to peer into other people's reality." The truth is, most of us are nosy.

Over the last couple of years, the networks have been dabbling with TV-Internet tie-ins. Notably, last March NBC did a three-part series of Homicide episodes in conjunction with its Web spinoff show, Homicide: Second Shift, following a plot from the Web site to TV and back online. In November, ABC simulcast an episode of the Drew Carey Show with a streaming-video Webcast from "offstage" locations. But these experiments have largely been one-off deals - they're heavily promoted prior to the event and are then forgotten.

How will the networks sustain momentum online? "That's the million-dollar question," says Brian Bowman, VP and general manager for ABC.com. The network already has scored a hit with its site for Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?

Constant cross-promotion is the key, Bowman says. During the TV broadcast, host Regis Philbin repeatedly reminds viewers to play along with ABC.com's version of the trivia game. So far, the company says, around 7.5 million people have done so.

The success of ABC's Millionaire site raises an interesting point about the so-called reality-based programming phenomenon. "Survivor needs to be looked at in the context of a game show," says Steve Rosenbaum, CEO of CameraPlanet.com.

The interactive media company works with Fox.com on the site for the recently canceled reality-TV series American High. The site is still operating, but its future is up in the air.

"If [the show] offered US$1 million to one of the kids when they graduated, it would have had a different audience," explains Rosenbaum. In other words, if American High had looked more like a game show - à la Survivor - it might have done better.

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