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Into a Brave New World of Crossover Potential

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When television met the Web recently on the mean cyber-streets of Baltimore, “Homicide: Life on the Street” fans witnessed a murder online and NBC demonstrated the power of cross-media synergy. In an unusual three-part series of episodes that began online, progressed on-air and concluded online, “Homicide” for the first time merged its TV story line and characters with those of its Web spinoff show, “Homicide: Second Shift.”

Although the impact on TV ratings was minimal--the TV episode was titled “Homicide.com,” which also serves as the show’s ongoing Web-site address--success registered immediately on the Internet. Network executives say they are encouraged enough by the response to continue to expand Internet crossover efforts on “Homicide” and other shows.

Sponsored by Microsoft, the “Homicide” TV-Web model, if it succeeds over time, is likely to serve as a blueprint for other broadcasters experimenting with ways to use the Web for creative, rather than solely promotional, purposes.

“When [production] people start the television or film production process, they will start needing to think, invariably, about what the presentation will be online, not just as a marketing effort, but as an integral part of the users’ experience,” said Terry Quan, business development manager for Microsoft, who brokered the sponsorship deal. Quan also believes that there will be a stronger tie-in between what’s available on other media as well as the Internet.

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Tom Hjelm, director of interactive programming and executive producer of NBC Digital Productions, added: “One of the exciting things about this crossover is that, I feel, it has justified our position as sort of a creative greenhouse for NBC programming. From the start, part of our mission was to serve as a kind of incubator, whereby online we could develop characters, even stories, and migrate them to the on-air shows, and that’s exactly what happened here.”

The logistics for viewers remained relatively simple. After a round of promotion on TV and the Web site, the plot line started Feb. 3 and 4 (Part 1) on the “Second Shift” site, with Internet viewers witnessing what turned out to be a staged ritual killing of a female college student broadcast on the Web.

“Homicide” picked up the story on Feb. 5 (Part 2) as an identical ritual killing surfaced on the Internet during the TV episode, and “Second Shift” detectives Tony Bonaventura (Michael Ornstein) and LZ Austin (Murphy Geyer) were called in to help investigate the murder, alongside “Homicide” detectives Rene Sheppard (Michael Michele) and Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor). Both teams traced the suspect via Internet connections and then challenged him to stage another online event, racing the clock to catch the masked killer mid-act.

The series returned to the “Second Shift” Web site Feb. 12 for a video synopsis and concluded March 1 (Part 3) with a live chat event that allowed viewers to interrogate the perpetrator by posting questions on the bulletin board.

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While Nielsen ratings for the Feb. 5 episode indicated only about a half-point increase from the previous week, the series made a huge impression on Internet audiences, as “Second Shift” experienced the equivalent of 6 1/2 weeks’ worth of normal Web traffic compressed into the six hours immediately following the East Coast airing of the show. NBC executives would not release exact traffic figures.

“I don’t think, ‘Oh, a million more people are going to be watching us on TV because they participated in the Internet version,”’ said “Homicide” executive producer Tom Fontana. “But I am somebody who believes that television as it currently exists will be in the future like silent movies are to us now. We have to keep trying to advance the technology so that the storytelling advances.”

Indeed, “Homicide.com” brought the show into the digital age, as it was the first episode in which the TV detectives used computers and the Internet to close a case. It was also the first time that “Second Shift” detectives played a pivotal role in a televised episode.

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Since its launch two years ago, “Second Shift” has used its Internet home to follow the other side of the Baltimore Homicide Unit, with a virtual shift of detectives who work the hours opposite the on-air crew. The online cast members walk the same streets and use the same offices as their TV counterparts--images that are familiar to those who watch the show--but solve different murders. Viewers can take advantage of the medium’s interactivity by clicking on crime scenes, listening to audio interrogations, examining close-up views of evidence and reading entire scripts.

While earlier “Homicide” show extensions with “Second Shift” have included online appearances by detectives Mike Kellerman (Reed Diamond) and Paul Falsone (Jon Seda), as well as on-air cameos by members of the Web site’s cast, the multi-part “Homicide.com” marked the first fully integrated crossover of plot and characters. The story line was a joint effort, co-developed by “Second Shift” producer Ayelet Sela and “Homicide” producer Sara Charno.

Previously, the cyber-inclined network, which also has an equity stake in the Internet portal Snap, has featured extensions with other shows such as “Profiler” and “The Pretender.”

“We’re gathering momentum toward doing more of this kind of programming,” Hjelm said, declining to go into specifics. “NBC has taken a long view of its position as a media company; it’s not just a television network, it’s an entertainment provider of content across different media, including the Internet.”

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According to Microsoft’s Quan, “NBC has been very aggressive in using new technologies as they come out and seeing how they might work in their content plan.”

Although Microsoft is wedded to the network through both the MSNBC cable channel and Web site, the company is not limited to partnerships with NBC, and Quan said he has spoken with other television and film production companies that are interested in developing a media convergence strategy for content.

For his part, Fontana said he was excited about the “Homicide.com” crossover and eager to “do it again and take it to the next level, whatever level that may be.”

A computer neophyte known to write scripts in longhand, Fontana would seem an unlikely proponent of new-media ventures. Nevertheless, he is committed to the creative potential of the Internet and has even conceived of a separate series that would integrate the Web. So far, the project has not been picked up.

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“There’s an odd resistance to it, and I’m not 100% sure why,” Fontana said. “But it’s so clearly to me the way of the future that I think anybody who doesn’t realize that now is going to be left at the station in about 10 years, maybe less, because things are happening much faster than they’ve ever happened before.”

* “Homicide: Life on the Street” airs Fridays at 10 p.m. on NBC.


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