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Using the Web to make a TV hit even bigger

An upstart ad agency teams up with the creator of USA's 'Burn Notice' to make a hit online spy game.

By Devin Leonard, senior writer
Last Updated: September 23, 2008: 12:25 PM EDT

Michael Westen finds himself adrift in Miami, in "Burn Notice."
A Saab is integrated into the online game, and appears on the show as well.

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- Michael Westen, the main character in USA Network's hit show, "Burn Notice," has plenty going for him. He's attractive, and handy with a sniper rifle. But after spending ten years as a covert operative in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, he has been mysteriously blacklisted by the United States. He's not sure what it will take to get his good name back.

USA Network, a subsidiary of NBC Universal, found itself in a similar position last spring with "Burn Notice." It couldn't have been happier with the results of the show's first season in 2007. The lighthearted thriller set in Miami was USA Network's top series, pulling in an average of 4 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research. But USA Network wasn't sure how many of them would tune in for the second season, beginning in July.

So the cable network enlisted "Burn Notice" creator Matt Nix and a maverick Los Angeles ad agency called Omelet to create a Web site called Burn Notice Covert Ops with a series of online missions that would run concurrently with the show. Covert Ops - inspired by deeply immersive online games for Microsoft' (MSFT, Fortune 500)s Halo 2, ABC (DIS, Fortune 500)'s "Lost" and Steven Spielberg's "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence" - has attracted hundreds of thousands of would-be Michael Westens, and become a template for future television marketing efforts.

Halfway though its second season, the television series has attracted 4.6 million average viewers - 15% more than last year. Meanwhile, Covert Ops, sponsored by GM's (GM, Fortune 500) Saab, has attracted 208,000 unique users. These "Burn Notice" addicts spend an average of 10.4 minutes trying to bust gun-smugglers and other ne'er-do-wells. USA Network likes that number because it speaks volumes about how engaged some fans are with the show. It's enticing to advertisers, too - after all, they have traditionally invested a big slice of their marketing budget on television spots that at best engage viewers for 30 seconds.

No wonder Chris McCumber, USA's executive vice president of marketing, digital and brand strategy, is happy with the campaign. "It's been incredibly successful," he says. "'Burn Notice' was off the air for almost a year [between the first and second season]. We needed to make it as big as it was the first season. So we needed to find other ways for viewers to interact and be part of the show."

USA Network isn't the only television show distributor to play with the idea of attracting a larger audience with games on its Web site. NBC, its sister network, does it with "The Office." News Corporation's (NWS, Fortune 500) FX has created an online game for fans of "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia."

"This is a growing trend," says Brad Adgate, senior vice president of research for Horizon Media, a New York agency. "These networks are taking these shows and turning them into brands by creating all these different touch-point opportunities." He adds these digital diversions are also usefully because they tend to attract a younger demographic to the shows.

Still, it's tough to find an online network game promotion that has worked as well as Covert Ops. USA Network elbowed its way past the Disney Channel (DIS, Fortune 500) this season to become the number one cable network. The success of Burn Notice, the network's biggest show, played no small role in this.

Off-off Madison

USA Network could have hired a large agency for the job. Instead, it called on Omelet, a 35-person ad shop headquartered far from Madison Avenue in Los Angeles' Koreatown. Omelet may be little known. But it has won business from Anheuser-Busch and Microsoft (MSFT, Fortune 500) because of its digital expertise.

What's more, Steve Amato, a partner as the firm, is an old friend of Matt Nix. That enabled his agency to work closely with the show's creator. "A lot of traditional agencies come in and say 'This is what you get,' and just take over the whole creative process," Amato says. "We knew the voice of 'Burn Notice' has to come from the creator and the show's writers."

Bonnie Hammer, president of NBCU Cable Entertainment, says this is why the campaign worked: "We want everything that we touch that is related to that show to have that same sense of cool, the same humor, the same graphic look, whether it's a print ad or an online game."

Amato didn't want to create the kind of simplistic online game you find on many network Web sites. He wanted to engage 'Burn Notice' fans with what is referred in the digital media world as an "alternate reality game." Perhaps the best example is the elaborate "I Love Bees" campaign commissioned by Microsoft to promote Halo 2.

Omelet and the 'Burn Notice' team created nine online missions for Covert Ops. These lead participants into a series of challenges not unlike the ones that Westen faces as part of his quest to restore his reputation and get the feds off his back.

The missions are sponsor friendly. Players must hunt down a Saab in the beginning of each mission and search through the vehicle for clues. "They came up with such a fantastic idea that we immediately jumped at it," says Dino Bernacchi, director of brand entertainment at GM. "The Saab was so well integrated."

Sure, it's product placement. But 'Burn Notice' is full of such stuff. Fiona, the cover operative's sidekick and former girl friend, drives a Saab on the show, too. Bernacchi also notes that many Covert Ops players click through to the Saab Web site to look at cars.

The first half of Burn Notice's season ended on Sept. 18. It returns early next year. Westen probably won't get his reputation back anytime soon, and his fans will have more online games to play - USA Network wants to be the number one cable network next year too. To top of page

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