In Depth

With ‘Harper’s Island,’ CBS Tests Web-TV Boundaries

It might not be obvious on the surface, but the new limited-run drama “Harper’s Island” has a lot in common with another CBS island-based show: “Survivor.”

Harper's Island

Like Mark Burnett’s groundbreaking reality series, “Harper’s”—an “I Know What You Did Last Summer”-style murder mystery—promises viewers complete storyline resolution at the end of its 13-week run. Both shows also offer the prospect of at least one character going home at the end of each episode.

And just as “Survivor” represented a big break from CBS’ programming in 2000, “Harper’s,” debuting Thursday at 10, is a major departure from the meat-and-potatoes dramas the network does so successfully in 2009.

“This is a different show for us. This is a home-run swing,” said Kelly Kahl, senior executive VP at CBS.

He said the comparison to “Survivor” applies insofar as that show, too, “was an out-of-the-box project. In both cases, we didn’t have a kind of typical game plan and we had to start from scratch and figure out how we were going to go about marketing it to the public.”

One of the biggest promotional tools CBS is utilizing for “Harper’s” is a potentially landmark online campaign for the show built around Web companion series “Harper’s Globe.”

“Globe” premiered online late last month as a parallel storyline to the on-air series debuting this week. With the pre-launch of the Web show, the network is aiming to build an audience through social marketing and community outreach that feeds into the network show.

CBS executives will be keeping a close eye on both the on-air and online performance of “Harper’s” for the next 13 weeks of the program’s life. If both the TV show and its companion Web series are successful, the company says it will aim to duplicate the model with other programs in the future.

“If there is another type of similar sequential reality drama, we now have a relationship with an audience that is passionate about the way we present it, and we can message them and invite them back in,” said Bill Binenstock, VP of CBS.com.

The dual online-TV experiment represents a new way of thinking about marrying the two mediums.

TV still draws the lion’s share of eyeballs, but younger demographics flock to the Web first. By offering fully baked storylines for each venue, the network may be able to amass a bigger total audience. CBS said it is working to sell the ad inventory for both in packages.

“The ‘Harper’s Globe’ story intersects in significant and real ways with ‘Harper’s Island,’” Mr. Binenstock said. “At a minimum you will see characters from ‘Harper’s Island’ appear on ‘Harper’s Globe,’ and you may see the opposite as well.”

CBS’ online strategy diverges from its competitors.

After experimenting with producing original Web series, ABC for now is sticking to offering the typical behind-the-scenes sneak peeks and related videos for its primetime series on the Web. Fox has taken the same tack. NBC also offers ancillary content and is developing original digital series through its NBC digital studio.

“We want to expand the experience in every way across all mediums,” Mr. Binenstock said.

As for the TV show, Mr. Kahl said hyping “Harper’s” as a limited event could make it more appealing to audiences already overbooked with commitments to favorite series.

“Viewers are bombarded with a lot of series, and this is a way for us to stand out,” he said. “We’re promising you a fun amusement park ride that doesn’t last forever. You don’t have to commit your life to it. You just have to commit 13 weeks.”

Indeed, as it stands now, “Harper’s Island” is a limited-run series, so it won’t make a comeback next year even if it’s a hit. That’s due to the nature of the storyline— it’s a murder mystery and has a natural end at the season finale.

CBS, currently the No. 1 network in viewers and a solid second among adults 18-49, can afford to take a chance on a nontraditional show such as “Harper’s.” It has a schedule filled with procedural dramas that repeat and syndicate well, giving it room to try out a show that might not have a huge syndication backend.

Of course, given TV’s hunger for hits, if “Harper’s” works, it’s not hard to see CBS trying the concept again, perhaps with a new cast or a new twist.

For now, Mr. Kahl is just trying to give “Harper’s” a chance to break through the midseason clutter.

The network rejiggered its lineup to make sure the show got an uninterrupted run of original “CSI” episodes to serve as its lead-in for as long as possible. That means “CSI” will be in original mode from April 9 until its May 14 season finale, giving “Harper’s” six weeks of a strong lead-in.

CBS also timed the “Harper’s” premiere so that it wouldn’t conflict with the final episodes of “ER” and so the network could give it heavy promotion during coverage of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. In addition, while other networks are launching multiple shows this midseason, CBS has just one newcomer this spring: “Harper’s.”

“We’re absolutely giving this show a shot to work,” Mr. Kahl said.

Industry observers are eager to see how the “Harper’s” experiment unfolds, particularly as it relates to the online/on-air cross-promotion.

“The whole paradigm for how shows are created, piloted and rolled out between the Web and TV and vice versa is in flux,” said Will Richmond, analyst with VideoNuze.com. “Each medium has its own advantages, and the trick is to figure out how to best capitalize on them and bring audiences along.”

The online series leans heavily on social interaction and communication with the audience through e-mail and other forums. That’s essentially social TV, said Kaan Yigit, analyst with Solutions Research Group.

“CBS is more interested in understanding the viewer and advertising dynamic in these settings, and they invested in that,” Mr. Yigit said. “We think of social viewing as the future of TV. What CBS is doing is more valuable than just using the Web as a second window on content.”