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CBS Nukes Ambitious 'Jericho' Digital Plan

Frank Ahrens

CBS's Wednesday night show, "Jericho," new this fall, is about life in small town after a nuclear attack.

Last spring, when CBS was shopping the story to advertisers, the network's head of advertising, Jo Ann Ross, said "Jericho" would have something CBS was calling a "D storyline."

The idea was to take the show's premise and characters and write and shoot scenes that would appear only on the show's Internet site. The D storyline would show action that happened off-camera from the TV version and advance other storylines.

I thought it was an inventive idea. The TV networks are moving more and more online and see the Web as a viable secondary revenue stream. Also, the Web has no broadcast-time restraints--shows can run as short or long as anyone wants and viewers can watch them anytime they want.

I worte about "Jericho's" D storyline for the paper in May.

A couple of weeks ago, I thought, "Hmm. Wonder how that D storyline is going."

So I went to CBS's "Jericho" Web site. I hunted everywhere and came up empty. No D storyline. The closest thing to it was something called "Countdown," a combination of fictional video and interviews with real-life figures.

Having watched the growing struggle between television content-creators and networks over the rights to -- and spoils of -- digital content, I had an idea this might be the case here.

I e-mailed helpful CBS p.r. guy Chris Ender and asked what happened to the D storyline. He wrote back:

"The initial intent was to do a storyline online that was directly connected to what you saw on the television screen. However, there are ongoing new media issues with some of the Guilds that prevented that from happening. But, clearly there is an appetite for 'Jericho' online; we saw it during the promotional launch and we're witnessing it at even greater heights since the show went on the air. So, we created original content online about 'Jericho' that's more of a companion piece, and it's become a very popular feature on the site."

Here's what's happening in Hollywood, and it's only going to get worse in the coming months: Late next year, the Writers Guild of America's contract comes up for renewal. Probably the most contentious issue between writers and the networks is digital content. Advertising revenue from digital content is a small piece of the pie now but it's only going to grow larger and fast.

The writers and producers want to be compensated for their work. The networks know there is money in digital content, but they're not sure yet where it is: Is it on the Internet? On pay-per-view? On cell phones? So they're reluctant to promise a cut of a pie that may not materialize.

In the case of "Jericho," the writers and producers did not want to go against their union. So they did not produce a D storyline. At the same time, CBS was selling the heck out of the show on the Internet, pushing it to bloggers, sci-fi fan sites and so forth. So they had to put up something on the site. Hence, Countdown, a demonstrably inferior product to the what was envisioned for the D storyline.

Still, "Jericho" is the most-streamed CBS show on Innertube, the network's on-demand Web site.

The gathering union storm may stunt the growth of digital content all through next year, or at least until the issue is resolved. It's ironic: With the widespread uptake of high-speed Internet, the Web and Web-enabled mobile devices are now a viable alternative to TV. But if there's no content to put on them...

Further, both sides are resolute: A Fox movie executive told me last summer his studio was already stoking a war chest in anticipation of a writers' strike.

By Frank Ahrens  |  December 4, 2006; 12:00 AM ET  | Category:  Frank Ahrens
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