Boob tube meets online maps as TV fans get creative

"24," "The Sopranos," "American Idol" fans track fictional heroes' movements via high-tech maps. Images: Celebrity mashups

Elinor Mills Former Staff Writer
Elinor Mills covers Internet security and privacy. She joined CNET News in 2005 after working as a foreign correspondent for Reuters in Portugal and writing for The Industry Standard, the IDG News Service and the Associated Press.
Elinor Mills
5 min read
Ever wonder where the Soup Nazi is located in Seinfeld's New York City? How about the back road where Tony Soprano nearly whacks his drugged-out second cousin Christopher?

To feed the growing hunger for more information about their favorite shows, fans are creating Web sites called mashups with details about the programs, including pinpoints of exactly where on a map key events in the shows happened and hometowns of reality show stars.

The makers of these fan sites are doing it, more than anything, because of the passion they feel for their favorite shows. Few of them expect to make much money off their projects. In fact, they run the risk of getting slapped with a lawsuit for infringing on the copyrights of the companies that have created the shows.

Nonetheless, they're working overtime to keep track of the intricately plotted shows that tend to spawn such online devotion. Mashups are one of the "Web 2.0" tools fueling the grassroots development phenomenon that's giving ordinary Web surfers the power to share information and create online applications without having programming skills. The Web 2.0 phenomenon has also thrust the everyday surfer into the role of media taste maker.

One media mashup that--like the show it follows--has grabbed a lot of attention is the Jacktracker, which follows the 24-hour footprints and burned rubber left behind by "24" protagonist Jack Bauer as he hunts down criminals.

"It can be rough late on a Monday night rewatching '24' and diagramming everything that happened," said Jacktracker creator Bob Hanifen, a lawyer for an auto manufacturing company who writes for the Gridskipper.com travel guide. "Tracking the locations of Bauer without the cooperation of Fox was difficult. But I figured out how because I know the Los Angeles geography."

The site is hosting a "Track the Jack" contest, which shows photos of a Jack action doll from Japan in various locations from the series and asks people to name the pictured location. The grand prize is the $200 action figure. "That's not cheap for a blog," said Hanifen.

That Web site has inspired others. "I saw the '24' Jacktracker, and that got my attention," said Ken Hudak, who created the "Geography of Seinfeld" mashup.

"I thought of my favorite show and how many different places they go...and that made it really easy," said Hudak, a geographic information systems technician in Detroit.

The American Idol Tracker tracks the location of the fan base of each of the contestants on the show and aims to gauge how many fans they have. There is also a mashup that pinpoints the filming locations of television show "Veronica Mars."

Images: Celebrity mashups

"The Amazing Race" reality show is perfect fodder for a mashup. Chasing Racers on Jaunted.com features satellite maps and links to starting points, locations visited and captions from the show. And Amazing Race 9 on JoeMap.com relies on a satellite to track the routes, including spots in Denver and Brazil from the first episode.

Meanwhile, Warner Bros. created a mashup to help promote its new movie "16 Blocks." The site shows aerial photography of the 16 city blocks in New York that a cop and a crime witness navigate to get to the courthouse alive. Viewers can watch video clips by clicking on icons on the map or a chronological time line of the action.

Home Box Office has created a mashup for "The Sopranos" in anticipation of the start this month of the sixth season. The site lets visitors click on icons where specific scenes took place to see a video clip and catch up on the action in the hit show, which has been on hiatus for two years.

It is surprising that more studios and broadcast networks looking for ways to increase viewership haven't caught on to the mashup rage, which seems a near perfect marriage of content and interactivity for an entertainment hungry public.

"I had expected more producers to integrate shows more into their Web sites. The fact that they don't have a map that you can use to track the characters is just silly," said Mike Pegg, a Canadian programmer who tracks mashups at Google Maps Mania.

Where studios and networks are lagging, there are plenty of fans to fill in the gaps.

For his Apprentice Contestants mashup, Virender Ajmani spent a weekend matching contestants on the show with their hometowns on a Google map. When the map pins are clicked, a balloon window opens up and displays more information, including an explanation for the reason a given contestant was fired.

"As Donald Trump put it, 'It was her stupidity that got her fired.' She kept interrupting Trump when he was about to fire Tarek the project manager. Anyway best wishes to you, Summer!" Ajmani wrote for the first contestant to be canned, 30-year-old Summer from Huntington Beach, Calif.

"I've been following 'The Apprentice' right from the first show," said the Plymouth, Mich., software developer. "I like the competitiveness. I like to watch Trump in action."

However, NBC may not turn out to be such a fan of the site.

"We are flattered and happy to see that fans are involved in the show," an NBC representative told CNET News.com. "However, we are looking into the use of our logos and copyrights."

Ajmani, who's creating a mashup showing hometowns and birth dates of all the Oscar best actor and actress winners since 1928, said other sites are using "The Apprentice" logo. "If it's an issue, I can remove it," he said. "I'm not making any money out of it. I just put Google ads there. It's kind of a community service."

Hanifen, creator of the Jacktracker mashup, said he does his mashup work for the love of his city.

"I like the show because the geography is very urban and I've lived in Los Angeles for 20 years. I'm a big cyclist and I've ridden my bike all over the city," he said. "I guess you could consider it my little way of promoting Los Angeles and the part of L.A. that most people don't see."