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Times Poll

Friday, November 24, 2000

Some Shows Aren't Big on TV, but on the Net They're Huge

By JOAN GIGLIONE, Special to The Times

     When women think about the sexiest man alive, many probably visualize a Hollywood star with charisma, charm and sex appeal--a George Clooney, Denzel Washington or Frank Sinatra.
     And Joshua Souza? Most women in America don't recognize that name. Yet this month, the Santa Maria, Calif., resident, formerly featured on the CBS summer replacement show "Big Brother," ranked first in People magazine's annual online "Sexiest Man Alive" poll.
     Souza is unknown to most of the TV, radio and film audience. So without that type of recognition, why was he the top vote-getter, with his "Big Brother" housemate, Eddie McGee, finishing second?
     The answer is surprising to many traditional television viewers, reflecting how a moderately successful television show can take on a life of its own on the Internet. There is a new way to view TV available exclusively to Internet users. Through interactive message boards, fans of television shows worldwide can chat with one another online in real time while watching television.
     CBS' "Big Brother" had two distinct audiences that were not mutually exclusive. The obvious audience was the TV viewers who could watch the program six nights per week from July 5 to Sept. 29. Those viewership numbers were small by prime-time television's standards, about 9 million a night. The average television user would tune in once and say, "I can't watch that show. Nothing is happening. People are just standing around talking. What is there to watch?"
     This portal opened when the contestants entered the Studio City house and closed with host Julie Chen's final, hollow words, "They lived, you watched. Good night." The second audience, however, was made up of computer viewers, where the show ran continuously, 24 hours per day, through live feeds on the Internet.
     In this realm, history was made. A television network--indeed, one of the major networks--budgeted a significant amount of money for production, advertising and publicity for what turned out to be primarily a Web-based show. Finally, there was something worth watching live on the Internet.
     Throughout the program's three-month life span, "Big Brother" fans watched the feeds and ventured to other locations on the Web to interact with compatriots. The phenomenon can be analyzed many ways. Two social science theories apply--parasocial interaction and communication networks.
     Parasocial interaction is a situation where an audience member feels as if they know a media figure personally. This relationship, though one-sided, mocks face-to-face interaction. Message boards are a way that Internet users can share a burning need to talk about their relationships with characters from series such as "Roswell," "The X-Files," "7th Heaven" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."
     Not surprisingly, forums aligned with youth-oriented programs have the largest following. Dr. Everett Rogers, Regents professor at the University of New Mexico, who studies society, technology and communication, notes that communication networks "consist of interconnected individuals who are linked by patterned flows of information."
     These individuals create a mutual understanding of reality by the way they share knowledge. By this process, Internet online communities can show signs of organizational culture.
     This means many things. To take part in these Web-based interactions, participants may need a clear understanding of the written and unwritten rules, the personality and biases, of each Web location, abiding by those rules in order to share in the experience.
     For "Big Brother," the online viewers became interactive participants with the CBS program. Computer users watched "Big Brother's" five male and five female contestants through a completely different medium than their TV counterparts, or more often, combined viewing hardware.
     The online audience for "Big Brother" reacted differently than conventional TV viewers. Unlike television, the Internet can be fast-paced and emotional. These characteristics can turn a couch potato with a remote control into a steadfastly loyal return viewer. This level of loyalty is now well known.
     Television programmers have paid little attention to these boards, which is a mistake, because the Internet audience is composed of fiercely loyal viewers who use the boards to strengthen their parasocial interactions.
     Some fans, with communal support from organized online groups, took extraordinary measures to influence the TV show's outcome. Kaye Mallory, a Fullerton teacher with a mighty Radio Shack megaphone, shouted messages across the Tujunga Wash from the program's Studio City venue. Others who met via the Internet hired a pilot to fly banners over the CBS Studio Center in hopes that contestants would rebel against their "Big Brother" overseers.
     With no visuals at most Web locations, fans can only hear and not see the interactions. Why is this important? Because TV and Internet audiences are thus very diverse with different habits, much like the disparity between morning-drive radio listeners and TV viewers, or people who read magazines versus those who read a daily newspaper.
     Each medium has a following with unique characteristics. Because "Big Brother" was in essence the first TV network Internet show--one blessed with a comparatively large publicity and production budget--hard-core online users swarmed to it. If nothing else, it showed a demand for World Wide Web programming, providing compelling material for this viewership segment.
     In addition, many viewers who found "Big Brother" cannot break away from the Web-based remnants of the show. "Joker," who removed his popular message site on Oct. 1, brought it back four weeks later due to continued user interest. So the Internet audience continues to stay with the show, even though its original U.S. incarnation (a sequel may follow) permanently left television screens almost two months ago.
     Granted, the audience has significantly dwindled. Yet many people on the message boards continue to read and post messages, some joking about their shared and recognized addiction.
     This refusal to let go of a since-departed program is not uncommon in the blending of the television screen and the computer monitor. Online campaigns have been waged on behalf of canceled CBS series such as "Now and Again," a sci-fi/comedy/romantic drama, and a revival of "The Magnificent Seven." "Star Trek" Web pages abound. Even "Married . . . With Children" still has 140 operational Internet tributes. For people who want more exposure to characters they followed, these sites become places to talk and mourn.
     Show loyalty is necessary in these chat rooms, the modern equivalent of gathering around the water cooler, since to participate fully people must know all the current information regarding a show and its characters. These are so-called appointment viewers, an eagerly sought and receptive market for advertisers' messages.
     As a demonstration of this audience's potential, for the People online "Sexiest Man Alive" poll the Web site began a late campaign to put Eddie McGee at the top. Between Oct. 26 at 10 p.m. and the time the poll closed on Halloween, fans moved McGee from outside the top 10 list to the No. 2 spot. Eddie's final tally was more than 110,000 votes--his fans voting more than 105,000 times in less than five days.
     While television stardom has eluded the "Big Brother" contestants since the program ended, they remain in demand on Internet radio shows and organized online chats--staying close to the medium where each formed a fan base. If widespread fame has not reached them, this past summer, they clearly captured the Web audience's attention.
* * *
     Joan Giglione has a PhD in communications and is currently teaching at Cal State Northridge.

Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times