Byline: K. C. Neel

Showtime Networks believes in the power of the Internet. In fact, the network’s efforts to integrate TV viewership of its Soul Food series with the show’s website has exceeded expectations, according to Rob Hayes, Showtime’s VP of new media.

Indeed, the network increased website traffic for its Soul Food site more than 40% this year, and message board postings rose more than 300%. It’s that kind of viewer loyalty that has earned Showtime a NAMIC Excellence Award this year for website and related promotions.

Soul Food, which just completed its third season in August, showcases the lives of three African-American women. The show targets African-American women 18 to 49 years old, and the online site aims to do the same. The pay network has developed online sites for several of its original shows, but some are more robust than others. Soul Food, Hayes says, lends itself to a strong online presence, and Showtime has tweaked and expanded the series’ site each year.

Clearly, the Soul Food website has become an extension of the show, Hayes adds. The site gives people an opportunity to learn about the show and interact with cast members and other viewers. It also allows viewers to voice their opinion about issues that affect their lives and has created a “community” for viewers of the show, Hayes says.

The network offers previews of upcoming episodes and behind-the-scenes footage of the show but added new elements this year to its online site including a summer sweepstakes launched this summer in conjunction with Grand Marnier. The contest offers contestants a chance to win a party for 20 of their friends and has garnered over 15,000 entries so far.

The Soul Food site included a new “day-in-the-life” feature this past season that followed cast members on a typical day on the set. It also added a feature that allows cast members to leave voice messages targeted toward online visitors. This was in response to the popularity of the message boards, which have been in place since the site was first launched three years ago, Hayes says.

The chat rooms and message boards have been some of the most accessed features of the site, he says. Viewers can comment on the series’ topics and expand into areas that affect their lives. The show’s story lines lend themselves to chat rooms, he feels, with topics ranging from work issues to family to relationships. Online chat attendance rose 80% this year over season two, and postings were up 300% from last season.

“We’ve built an online community around the show that has been very successful,” Hayes says.

The Soul Food website is tweaked each season. Visitors to the site are polled about what they like, dislike and what they’d like to see. “Each season we ask people what they want to see on the website and we really listen to what they say. I think that is why we’ve been so successful,” Hayes says, noting that new features are being developed now for the series’ fourth season, which will make its debut in March.

For instance, next season online visitors will be able to call and leave voice mail messages for cast members and other users, and message boards will be expanded to include voice chats between users and cast members, Hayes says. The site will also expand its day-in-the-life feature to include the men on the show.

Showtime promotes the site in several ways including banner ads on Showtime’s homepage, during interstitial programming breaks and newspaper and radio ads. Showtime has received several accolades for its website efforts surrounding Soul Food, Hayes says. For instance, in addition to the NAMIC Excellence Award the network will receive this week during the NAMIC conference in New York, the network was awarded the 2001 Governor’s Award for Diversity programming from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, a Broadcast Design Award for best interactive screensaver and a Silver CTAM Mark Award for website promotion.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Copyright by Media Central Inc., A PRIMEDIA Company. All rights reserved.

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group

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