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Loser-generated content

Sick of being the biggest loser when it comes to free-to-air Web portals, Ten's getting serious.

Ella Morton

commentary It's been a few weeks since I last poured scorn upon Channel Ten. Since then, The Biggest Loser has returned to our screens and browsers, February -- the month in which Ten's new site will launch -- has hit, and I've sat down for a good long chat with Damian Smith, general manager of digital media at Ten.

Prior to meeting Smith, I had become a little schadenfreude on the channel. This all began almost exactly a year ago, when I wrote a commentary on the fact that Ten was the only free-to-air network in the country without a decent Web site or discernable online strategy.

In the ensuing 12 months, this Web site has been host to many further -- mostly negative -- ruminations on Ten, from their decision to refer to a Wikipedia entry in publicity for an American drama series to the online forum hoo-haa in the wake of the Big Brother turkey slap.

I have no vested interest in slagging the channel off -- hey, I'm smack bang in the middle of their target demographic, and am known to get all fan-girly when it comes to Australian Idol -- but incidents kept occurring that left me perplexed and frustrated as a Web user and TV viewer. Trying to download an episode of Supernatural, for example, was an error-laden experience that would likely deter a first-time downloader from further attempts at obtaining TV content online.

Though I had charted Ten's meandering course with unchecked disdain for some months, I was very glad of the opportunity to speak with Smith and give him the chance to change my view of the network.

Being mutually verbose, we covered a lot of ground, and I will tentatively say that things are looking promising over in Pyrmont. Ten has been on a hiring spree of late, amassing around 25 people within six months -- all of whom are dedicated to online ventures. The new Web portal will launch with a focus on the locally produced shows, with self-contained Biggest Loser, Big Brother and Australian Idol sites being the main attractions.

One plan I particularly liked was the "DVD extras" feature -- Australian shows are being made with Web offerings in mind, and producers will shoot extra footage that forms part of online-only content. Some shows' Web sites will allow TV viewers wanting to see more of skimmed-over plotlines to watch expanded scenes. This is similar to the approach taken by NBC in the US, whose The Office site I've praised previously.

The main theme I come back to, and an approach that I reckon will work for any TV channel negotiating the tricky broadcast/digital divide is "Understand your audience, and show that you respect them in what you provide". That's it. For Channel Ten, this means understanding what they can offer that differs from what people can access via other sites or BitTorrent. I'm liking the extra content from locally produced shows. I'm digging on the plans for customisable, video-heavy Big Brother and Idol megasites.

My one lingering reservation about Ten's online strategy is that there still seems to be a culture of "launch first, fix later". This can best be illustrated by recent activity in the forums section of the Web site for The Biggest Loser. On Monday night, there were three separate user-initiated threads in the General Chat section begging for a moderator to establish order.

As we saw with Big Brother's forums last year, things can get rapidly libellous when you have a heap of anonymous users posting in the community section of a primetime show. To Ten's credit, an administrator deleted 50 of the more offensive threads, cancelled some user accounts, and posted a thread warning site visitors to play nice. The thread appeared approximately eight hours after the original plea for moderation was posted.

While it's good to see that users are being listened to, it's worrying that it took requests from multiple people, via multiple methods (some used a "report abuse" button, others followed a Contact Us link, and at least one made a telephone call to the network). Sure, it's impossible to constantly keep a tight rein on user-generated content without sacrificing a site's useability and fun factor. But if you provide a forum for your TV show, you should at least ensure that it doesn't become overrun by trolls hell-bent on insulting your show's contestants in the most offensive manner possible.

Having said that, the Biggest Loser site has some great stuff on it and reflects Ten's developing understanding of what audiences want from a program's Web offering -- the online-only video diaries are particularly engrossing. Providing the tricky issue of forum moderation is sorted out swiftly, the overall site is a good sign for what's to come.