In this Sunday's episode of Fox's hit TV show "The Simpsons," Homer buys a computer and promptly causes a stir in his hometown of Springfield by publishing an online gossip column under the pseudonym Mr. X.
Perhaps the only truth about the Web publication is that it exists. At Mrxwebpage.com, Simpsons fans can read Homer's scoops, such as one about Apu trying to pass off chewy, week-old doughnuts as bagels at his Kwik-E-Mart grocery store.
"This is the year 2000; everybody in Springfield should have a Web site," said Jordan Kurzweil, senior vice president of entertainment for News Digital Media at Fox.com.
Like most studios, News Corp.'s Fox overhauled its TV show Web sites before the fall season kickoff in an effort to capture and retain larger audiences. The move highlights producers' willingness to exploit the Internet.
The size of Web audiences pales in comparison with those of top-ranked TV shows, which draw millions of viewers for single episodes and command top advertising dollars. Few TV Web sites draw more than 100,000 visitors in a month.
TV studios are hoping to increase those numbers with bolder experiments in online programming. They are spending bigger chunks of their budgets on Web productions, attempting to engage fans with souped-up interactive features using Flash technology, live chats with the stars, and video clips.
The trend brings an end to the days of inexpensive and static TV program sites, said Carlos Chiossone, co-founder of New York-based Sprout Communications, which has designed several sites for Sony Pictures Digital Entertainment.
"A year ago studios would put pretty much anything online just to say the show had a Web site, (but they) didn't really care what it looked like," Chiossone said. "But now more and more studios want the look and feel of the show and make it more interactive."
Production companies are beefing up online staffs by hiring Web-primary content writers, designers and producers. At Fox, for instance, nearly all of the most popular shows have a dedicated producer responsible for developing the cyberspace programming.
"Having a Web site is the only way for a producer to grab the audience by the lapels and extend the life of its programming," said David Card, a senior analyst at Jupiter Media Metrix in New York. "To reach an audience, programmers are building Web sites to add to their bag of tricks."
Chiossone's nine-person business has already designed six TV Web sites including one for Sony's "Ricki Lake" talk show. The assignments have proved to be a considerable boost for Chiossone's design company, which is more accustomed to creating sites for magazines such as Time's Real Simple and for products such as the Slim Fast diet program.
"It was a big account, no doubt," Chiossone said, giving an estimate of $60,000 per job.
Relatively low budgets
But compared with the cost of producing TV shows, budgets typically earmark little for developing Web sites. On average, companies spend $10,000 to $150,000 on a Web site, according to Jeff Rowe, general manager of Zap2it.com, a Web-based TV listing service owned by Tribune Media Services. That contrasts with the $10 million to $40 million budget required to produce a 22-episode season, he said.
Few have been able to say whether an online presence increases and retains a show's audience. At least one analyst is skeptical that a Web site makes a difference.
"It's like preaching to the converted," said Ed Martin, editor of the Myers Programmer Report, a TV and new media newsletter. "If you're a 'Simpsons' fan, you're likely going to watch the show on Sunday night regardless of what's on the Internet."
Although the plan to turn online consumers into TV viewers is in a pilot run, early studies by Nielsen Media Research, the TV ratings systems, found some encouraging signs--mainly that the growing online audience has not directed attention from TV programs.
Further, online traffic numbers are gaining. Oprah.com drew the greatest traffic at 699,000 visitors for October, according to Nielsen/NetRatings, a Web measuring company in Palo Alto, Calif. TheSimpsons.com saw 152,000 people click to the site, and Fox's Dawsonscreek.com hosted 137,000 visitors.
Although directing fans of a particular show to an online address may eventually help extend a program's reach, not all shows easily lend themselves to online material, analysts warned.
No breakthrough yet
For now, "nobody has really broken through yet with the killer, gotta have application," said Zap2it's Rowe.
Like many sitcoms, NBC's "Friends" has had a hard time integrating the TV show with a Net audience.
An official "Friends" site on NBCi.com includes message boards and chat features that let fans discuss everything from Rachel's diary to her new hairdo. But the site has attracted relatively little attention, signing up just 9,434 members as of late Wednesday and sparking just a few hundred "threads" on its chat board.
The most popular NBC-sponsored Web club, for the soap opera "Days of Our Lives," had signed up just 25,843 members.
NBCi representatives could not be reached for comment.
Even as TV studios are stepping up their online efforts, a couple of dot-com players are heading in the opposite direction.
Careers Web site Monster.com launched a 30-minute television show on Friday. The show, which will provide tips for and testimonials from job seekers, will air on The Learning Channel and local and national cable networks.
In October, eBay said that it was in talks with the major networks to develop a TV show based on its online auction service.
News.com's Troy Wolverton contributed to this report.