The networks have caught on to the fact that more and more of us are watching our favorite TV online these days so why are there so few decent show-companion websites for us to visit? As a service to the nets' IT divisions (and our weary browsers), here are our tips for creating engrossing, attractive pages that will keep fans coming back for more, inspired by the few sites that actually work. Let's change the rest to http://AWESOMENESS!
1. Have a clean design.
First rule of Website Club: When we show up, there should be nothing playing. We're talking to you, ABC.com and CWtv.com, and your blaring streaming videos. Let us decide when we want to get the content party started, and please, don't make our eyeballs bleed. While NBC.com was designed with the programs' personalities in mind, the goodies on sites for shows like The Office and Heroes are jammed together in tiny boxes easily confused with ads. CBS.com has a streamlined site, but perhaps it's because it has very little content. (Surely you could make your CSI sites do something. Anything.) Yay to Fox.com for mixing crisp graphics, eye-catching headers, and a little visual breathing room.
2. Play to the fans.
In a hugely unscientific survey, we determined that the No. 1 reason people visit official show websites is to watch the episode they missed the night before. But if they are fan enough to track down a missed installment, they'll want info that respects them as a fan: cross-referencing character guides (like Lost's Connections section), music lists that link up with downloads (Gossip Girl does a solid job), and detailed recaps that go beyond the standard PR loglines. (NBC.com gets credit for trying to build a comprehensive database of all 15 ER seasons, but it has a looong way to go.) Once we're caught up, we crave such things as deleted scenes (love the Office extras) and additional footage (like The Amazing Race's ongoing ''Elimination Station'' webcast on each week's loser). And we'd like the ability to easily share our favorite clips with friends, something late-night hubs like thedailyshow.com with its embeddable segments and David Letterman's thorough lateshow.cbs.com understand better than anyone.
3. Take content cues from your show.
The undisputed champ here is ABC.com and Lost. Its volume of information may be trumped by obsessive fansites, but the official URL is always willing to help guide viewers down new rabbit holes. Other shows that spin off the series' sensibilities: Ugly Betty already home to the best podcast in the biz, featuring actors Michael Urie and Becki Newton has finally started ''publishing'' Mode online; Barney's oft-referenced personal blog on the How I Met Your Mother site is so good it spawned a book; and Numb3rs puts up a new math stumper every week.
4. Bonus features should be, you know, a bonus.
No more clips of actors on set talking about how ''grateful'' and ''excited'' they are. (Way to get one whole video diary up, 90210.) We want actual information. Take a look at the writers' blogs on ABC.com's Grey's Anatomy and Fox.com's Terminator sites for how to build a relationship with your audience, then check out Angela Kinsey's Office space for a perfect fusion of character, actor, and hilarity. (This is one place where NBC.com reigns supreme, thanks to the video on 30 Rock's Kenneth the Web Page, and webisodes featuring Chuck's Buy More pals.) In short: Save the money you were gonna drop on that pointless Flash game, and buy a digital handicam instead. Strap it to an intern and send him backstage. Post the footage. See page views soar. Thank us later.