Putting TV on the Net -- Networks hope to win over new audiences with online content, but their offerings fall short

Everything that rises must converge, wrote Flannery O’Connor, and many media execs are hoping she was right. The notion of melding TV shows with online content offers schedulers the prospect of a young, hip audience that might turn out to be as loyal to the network as it is to the Net. Meanwhile, Web weavers want to tap into the popularity of the tube’s hit shows — and their TV-caliber ad dollars.

On the strength of this theory, CBS and NBC both turned multimedia guinea pig on Friday, March 27. NBC undertook its first ”double crossover” between its on-air drama Homicide: Life on the Street and NBC.com’s excellent online spin-off, Homicide: Second Shift (www.nbc.com/homicide).

What’s a double crossover? In this case, it consisted of Second Shift detectives Bonaventura (Michael Ornstein) and Johnson (Raymond Anthony Thomas) being called in to help find a kidnapped child on the TV episode. Meanwhile, two of the TV cops, Detectives Falsone (Jon Seda) and Bayliss (Kyle Secor), have entered the cyberprecinct for several weeks to assist in the investigation of a hacker’s suspicious death. It was refreshing to see Bonaventura and Johnson moving freely instead of in herky-jerky video snippets, but all that movement pretty much took place in the background: They were relegated to small roles on the show — unlike Falsone and Bayliss, who got big play on the website. And though the technical execution was seamless, the event was a big bore as a convergence milestone. After all, Second Shift is written by a site staffer and gets very little input from viewers, so the crossover looked like countless similar stunts we’ve already seen on TV (such as a previous Homicide/Law & Order interaction back in 1996).

CBS, by contrast, sought to capitalize on the Net’s interactivity by teaming up with the Web service provider Excite to sponsor the Great Skate Debate: 14 champion figure skaters competing live from the University of Illinois’ Chicago Pavilion, where 5,000 audience members rated their performances electronically. At the same time, home viewers were to judge the skaters via the website skate.excite.com. The scores would be averaged, and a winner would emerge.

Sadly, the Great Skate Debate quickly turned into the Grating Skate Debacle. Excite’s server bogged down almost immediately and I had to click at least two dozen times before I got to vote — on two skaters whose ratings had already been tallied. (By then it was presumably too late for those long-deferred votes to count.) And despite nonstop attempts, I didn’t get another ballot until the show had been over — and the polls closed — for 15 minutes, at which time the server happily accepted my four duplicate votes.

CBS revealed its cluelessness about the technology about midway through the first hour, as announcer Vern Lundquist proudly declared, ”Over 6,000 of you voted at home for Ekaterina Gordeeva.” Six thousand? After Excite had been talking up its 3-million-person-per-day capacity? Meanwhile, on the ice, a bare-midriffed Kristi Yamaguchi won the women’s title after she boogied ineptly to an Elvis blues tune; Scott Hamilton bested his male opponents with a six-minute Wizard of Oz minimusical, complete with giant witch’s hat and sparkling ruby skates. Such hokey programming suggests that CBS believes there’s a wired audience out there that’s not entirely composed of cutting-edge college students — and Excite’s jammed server proves that the network may be right. But a cybersnarl like this one is likely to turn off that older, more middle-of-the-road audience — still relatively new to the Web — and it certainly won’t impress the aforementioned hip young Netizens.