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‘Jericho’ Enhances Fantasy With Fact

Nov 27, 2006  •  Post A Comment

When CBS Entertainment wanted to use fact to enhance the fiction of post-nuclear hit “Jericho,” it solicited ideas for an online element from veteran CBS News producer Susan Zirinsky.

The result was “Countdown,” a “webumentary” serving up real information that parallels the plotline from that week’s episode of “Jericho” on the network and that has a look Ms. Zirinsky, the executive producer of “48 Hours: Mystery,” describes as “`Blair Witch’ meets nuclear bomb.”

As a presumably radioactive storm moves toward the town of Jericho, Kan., or a private army led by a scruffed and trigger-happy D.B. Sweeney menaces that all-American town on CBS, “Countdown” doles out information-supplied on-camera by firemen, academics and other experts who abound in New York-about how nuclear fallout would affect people, or about how real-life private armies are sometimes pressed into use by the United States government.

“The core of these webumentaries is real. The reality is pretty scary,” said Anthony Batson, the “48 Hours” senior producer who runs the “Countdown” project with Ms. Zirinsky.

“Jericho’s” mysterious compleat survival expert Robert Hawkins (played by Lennie James) is the storytelling device for the Web installments, which are produced by Ms. Zirinsky’s guerrilla team of five producers from “48 Hours” through CBS Eye Too Productions, a non-news unit that produces content for outside outlets.

However, Mr. Hawkins is suggested rather than seen. He’s a shadowy figure in a car or an alley, or half of an e-mail conversation with someone who appears to know more than even he knows.

With a little bit of video shot by producer Chuck Stevenson and a lot of special effects courtesy of producer editor Tom Costantino, “Countdown” is eye-catching. Kevin Hayes is associate producer and archivist.

Ms. Zirinsky said “Countdown” is not losing money but that “this is not a make-money proposition.”

It’s “incredibly labor-intensive. We’re bringing a prime-time sensibility to this four or five minutes on the Web,” Ms. Zirinsky said.

The team does not get pertinent information or scripts early, and their lips are zipped about upcoming twists. However, Mr. Batson did share that “Countdown” will begin to include “stuff that ties back into the show’s mythology.”

By the time four episodes had been posted on CBS.com’s “Jericho” page (the webumentaries also go to YouTube on the Monday after an episode is broadcast), “Countdown” had become the second-most-streamed original Web show on CBS’s Innertube, behind the Web-original summer reality series “InTurn.”

If Web-only art imitates broadcast life, “Countdown” is headed for the top spot among Web originals: “Jericho” is the most-streamed show on CBS.com.