For more details, refer to website: Online tie-ins fill in blanks for TV fans [www.torontostar.ca]

Raju Mudhar

What do Lost’s mysterious numbers, The Office’s Andy Bernard and Heroes’ Hana Gitelman all have in common? All three are part of the TV trend involving Internet tie-ins, where watching TV is increasingly no longer enough to understand your favourite shows.

While Lost’s numbers remain one of the many almost-forgotten subplots on the actual show, this past summer they were actually explained not on the show but in The Lost Experience. It was a game that hid clues in websites and if you hung in until the end, or puzzled it out, you learned what Hurley’s mysterious numbers meant. (If you want to find out, simply go online.)

Meanwhile, abrasively ambitious Andy, played by Ed Helms, abruptly vanished from episodes of The Office after punching a wall in the Jan. 18 show. According to U.S. media reports, The Office is experimenting with putting deleted scenes online (another example is NBC’s Friday Night Lights), as well as adding them into longer versions of the show that air on NBC’s website and are available for download on iTunes. (Neither is available in Canada.) An extra scene showed Andy ordered to undergo anger management classes, which will factor into televised episodes later on.

Heroes’ Hana Gitelman is the character introduced two episodes ago, whose powers allow her to read emails and intercept wireless signals.

The show’s sprawling online presence includes online graphic novels that help fill out characters’ back-stories, and while the Gitelman character has only appeared on TV in one episode, she’s starrred in five of these online comics.

The first four explained her origins and why she’s going after Mr. Bennet, a.k.a. Horn Rimmed Glasses, and a fifth shared why she didn’t go with her new companions Matt Parkman (Greg Grunberg) and the explosive Ted Sprague (Matthew John Armstrong) to confront him.

Without going online, viewers were left baffled by a hole in the story.

While tie-ins are nothing new for years, all kinds of shows have produced books to cash in on characters the key thing here is that most of them have been unimportant ancillary materials for the super fan, not necessarily part of the canon of the show.

Given that ACTRA’s recent six-week strike was in part about compensation for “webisodes” and other new media content, it’s worth asking how important should these extras be?

“You want to do something that’s complementary and supplementary, and not something that you need to have watched in order to enjoy the television experience,” says Stephen Stohn, the online executive producer of CTV teen soap Degrassi. For Degrassi, there is a raft of tie-ins including comics books, but Stohn says they usually focus on two types of content. It’s either content meant to be occurring between episodes, or something that enters into more fanciful territory.

“For the `What ifs?’ we’ll have fun and do things like having two characters trade places. So what if Jay were Emma, or Emma was Jay? Or we’ll do a takeoff, like the Lost episodes, and it’s as if the Degrassi characters were on Lost, which of course is tremendous fun … the actors love it and so do the fans,” Stohn says.

“It is a challenge, to come up with something that is compelling enough to watch that can be standalone and not pivotal to the plot,” says Pary Bell, director, online media, Alliance Atlantis.

For their Canadian show Billable Hours, Bell and his team came up with a full episode that’s only going to air on the Web. However, the plan is to release it in small chunks over five weeks.

“I think we’ve created something that works in a different medium. I think that there is going to be more and more full episodes on different media, on the computer or cell phones, and people will watch them …but it doesn’t capture the medium. It’s still television and what works best on the Internet is stuff that’s short. So these things are going to be really important in extending the brand.”

In Canada, shows like CTV’s Corner Gas, Robson Arms and Degrassi and Alliance Atlantis’ Rent-A-Goalie and Billable Hours are all involved or will soon be launching Web-only content.

Stohn admits there isn’t any revenue in any of these online extensions, but he says it’s worth it to keep a show in the minds of fans when it’s not airing.

If you don’t get a chance to look it up online, it’s possible you could also see material created for the Web included on upcoming DVDs as extras.

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