Rabbit Holes to Crummy Commercials: Hollywood’s Missed Opportunities

Jack Bauer is driving across the African plain when his phone rings. He picks it up, and the camera gets a purposeful shot of its screen, complete with a non-555 phone number! Jack Bauer's phoneCalling it, it’s an actual number! It rings……then an answer. “Thank you for calling the Sprint/24 interactive experience!…” Hmm.

The CSI crew is tracking down evidence. They find out that a suspect has a website: LadyHeather.com. Firing up your browser, you enter the URL and…..get redirected to CBS.com.

Something’s wrong here.

As a consumer of entertainment, when I’m watching a TV show or film and something pulls me in deeper, I want to be rewarded with more story, more universe, more about what I’m experiencing. If I make the effort to go deeper, I don’t want to be rewarded with what amounts to a crummy commercial instead of content.

Over the past decade, the digital space has generally been seen as a promotional space when it comes to entertainment properties. From the very first official movie website (for the film Stargate) to today’s Facebook and iPhone apps, studios and networks have been using the Internet to promote their products, which has all been well and good, I suppose.

But in 2010, it’s time to go beyond this. It’s time for Hollywood to realize that the digital space can and should be a place where content itself can live, where the art is, where the story is. It doesn’t have to just promote the story, it can extend the story, be an integral part of it. Not a mission-critical part, necessarily, but a place where, if the audience digs deeper, they are rewarded with content that enriches the experience, not some ad that pulls them out of it.

Additionally, it doesn’t need to be branded with the network or studio all over the place. The viewer who got there knows how he or she got there, so why the need to advertise something they already have? They want more of the rich universe, or more about the character they love so much. They want to continue experiencing what they were experiencing, not get yanked out of the story to be hit over the head with marketing.

I wish I had numerous examples of instances where Hollywood has gotten it right, but alas, they’re few and far between. Heroes had a good thing going for a while (note the lack of any overt links back to NBC there). How I Met Your Mother gave it a shot. The Office is coming real close. These are the exceptions right now, although I give NBC credit for being the only US network that’s even trying to get it right!

So, do you want to stand out with your stuff, Hollywood? Then stop rewarding your audience (who loves your stuff so much that they want more of it) by bombarding them with even more ads, or sending them to your site to promote other programming, or making them bear partner promotions. Give them what they want: Ways to enrich their experience and explore your fictional world.

To drive the point home, I leave you with this. :)
(or jump to 2:20 for the climax)


  1. Christy Dena says:

    EXCELLENT video to drive the point home Peter! :))

  2. Christy Dena says:

    Erm, why did I call you Peter? (This is not a rabbit hole!)

  3. Steve says:

    Heh, happens all the time. No worries, Dena.


  4. Rowan says:

    I’d say that How I Met Your Mother has done more than “give it a shot”. They mention real websites a couple of times each season that allow viewers to at least get a few more laughs out of the show. Granted, the websites aren’t extensive, but they are “real” and not just some redirect back to the parent network site. Going by the list on Wikipedia ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/How_I_Met_Your_Mother#Websites ), all but 3 of the websites are still available to view, and most have no overt links back to CBS or an official HIMYM page. And calling Barney Stinson during the Super Bowl just got you an invite to meet him in 2016 and not an ad to watch HIMYM the next day. Sure I would love something that went a little deeper, but I do give them a lot of credit for putting up websites that are what they say they are and not just blatant redirect.

  5. Steve says:

    Yes, HIMYM is doing awesome stuff, agreed. I need to watch that show more. :)

  6. Nighthawk says:

    Great article, and oh so true.

    I’m reminded of the “Midnight Riders” website for L4D2, which I believe is ONLY mentioned on the posters visible in the Whispering Oaks safe house…


    Valve really knows how to maximize the experience.

  7. Tresbien aka Linda says:

    Sounds like there are some companies that could use your expertise Steve!

    Want to give a shout out to ABC for The LOST Experience, which introduced me to the amazing world of ARGs. TLE not only further engaged the viewers of LOST but also promoted four brands: Verizon, Sprite, Jeep and monster.com.

  8. labfly says:

    great pc, Steve!

    and i would add that as we move fwd > with interactive television (if Google has their way) just ahead, experimenting & pushing & learning & getting out ahead of the pack with extending the fiction and engaging your audience is the only way to go.

  9. Randomeis says:

    I have to give CBS props for The Big Bang Theory too. Not only do they have excellent in-character Twitter accounts, I’ve often been able to pause and find mentioned websites, youtube videos, and other character accounts.

  10. I can see why NBC still leads the pack in terms of American networks since they were an early adopter of this approach, with efforts such as Homicide: Second Shift.

    I also like the online extras for the Canadian series Being Erica and the various tie-in websites for Doctor Who, which seem to fit the “more universe” mold you’re describing.

  11. Steve says:

    Yes, mea culpa, how could I forget LOST’s TLE? I hadn’t heard of a lot of these others, so this is really good, encouraging for sure. But we still have a long way to go, as for every Dharma Initiative, there are 100 Ovaltines. :)

  12. i really love this comedy TV Series, Allyson Hannigan is also very pretty.,`’

  13. Web Form says:

    last week our class held a similar discussion on this subject and you illustrate something we haven’t covered yet, thanks.

    – Laura