It wasn't until later in the decade that major networks figured out that something big might be happening on what was then dubbed "the information superhighway." The savviest producers jumped to capitalize on what media experts already knew: The future of entertainment would reside online. But it was difficult back then to know what TV fans would want to look at on their laptops—or what would lure fledgling internet addicts back to their sets.
And so it was a clunky ride from the late 1990s to the late 2000s, from crude gimmicks to something more like the sophisticated intertextual play of today. The nine TV-to-internet crossovers below trace that awkward process, as one medium tried to integrate with another.
1997: Homicide: Life on the Streets
The first episode of Homicide: Life on the Streets aired after the 1993 Super Bowl, and drew over 18 million viewers. But by 1997, the audience for NBC's nervy cop series had dwindled to a loyal core—the kind of people who loved the show so much that they were willing to take part in an experiment.
During one of Homicide's hiatuses, NBC launched "Second Shift," a text-and-photo based weekly web series that followed one case from the perspective of the Baltimore homicide detectives who came to work after the TV characters clocked out. Two years later, the worlds of the internet and network TV overlapped for "Homicide.com," an episode which continued a story that had actually begun (and would eventually end) online. It was a precursor to the modern-day "web exclusives," aiming to keep the faithful engaged past the closing credits. But "Second Shift" also showed that networks were thinking the new content would be a lot like the old: discrete units of plot, parceled out once a week.
Most of the early promotional websites for TV episodes were taken down long before any of the current internet archiving services could save them for posterity. But Felicity's computer-literate graphic designer Noel Crane still has an active page: "My Life in the Ghost of Leon," or noelcrane.com.
The site went live early in the show's run, and was updated periodically over the ensuing four years. (The company that designed and created it has posted a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes here.) This was a major step up from Homicide's web series, as the Felicity promotional team tried to create a richer life for Scott Foley's sensitive character outside of the weekly script.
Fans will recognize Noel's fingerprints all over the page, which combines overly fussy animation effects with snarky takedowns of "web clichés" and faux-humble pitches to potential employers. Felicity devotees can debate about whether Keri Russell's character should've ended up with Ben or Noel, but anyone who visits "My Life in the Ghost of Leon" will forever be #teamben.
1999: The Drew Carey Show
The Drew Carey Show rarely gets the credit it deserves for constantly reinventing both itself and the whole workplace sitcom genre during a nine-season run. Here's how cutting-edge the show could be: On November 10th, 1999, ABC aired an episode performed and broadcast live in three different time zones, with freshly improvised material for each version. Then, one week later, the network followed up with "Drew Cam," which featured segments simulcast on the internet.
The "Drew Cam" plot sees Carey's character agreeing to webcast his home life to promote his department store's line of products. During the episode, viewers could go online and watch some of the action from the perspective of the webcam—even seeing gags and scenes not on TV. The clever gimmick has rarely been repeated outside of reality shows like Big Brother, even though at the time, the webcast portions of The Drew Carey Show were seen by over half a million viewers. One possible reason for the lack of follow-through? The age of the DVR meant that fewer and fewer people were watching episodes in real time.
2000: The Simpsons
There's not a whole lot to mrxswebpage.com, the site that 20th Century Fox and The Simpsons writers created in conjunction with season 12's "The Computer Wore Menace Shoes." The page looks plain and garish, and the half-dozen links just lead to paragraph-long fake news items, meant to resemble the internet gossip that Homer Simpson slings in the episode.
Still, this was one of the earliest examples of a TV series mentioning a website and then fans discovering that it actually exists—something so common now, it's more surprising when it doesn't happen. (Plus, the provocative headlines and eye-straining design of Mr. X's Web Page still make for a blunt but effective parody of Matt Drudge, the original clickbait master.)
The Simpsons produced a few other fake sites around the same time as Mr. X—including whatbadgerseat.com—helping to establish the now standard industry practice.
2001: Two Guys and a Girl
The ABC sitcom Two Guys, A Girl and a Pizza Place lost its pizzeria after season two, and lost most of its audience after season three. To try and goose interest in a possible fifth season, the producers ended season four in May of 2001 with an episode called "The Internet Show," which allowed viewers to vote online to decide which of the series' three female characters was going to have a baby.
Four different endings were shot (including one where no one was pregnant), and the original plan was for Two Guys and a Girl to deal with the ramifications of what the audience wanted if the show were renewed. Alas, not enough people cared, so somewhere in TV land, a ratings stunt baby remains unborn.
Throughout its six seasons, ABC's Lost had a stellar promotional team, who took advantage of fans' thirst for more information about the mysterious island where the passengers of Oceanic flight 815 crash landed. In addition to playing the online game "The Lost Experience," committed Lost-ies would search the internet and find references to fictional musicians and scientific studies, many of which had been planted by people involved with the show.
The first big easter egg was the now-vanished Oceanic Airlines website, which in its original version included secret messages buried in the source code, and special video content if users clicked in the right spots. This was a level jump from other shows' fake sites, and reflected how much savvier the networks had gotten about how TV viewers use internet since the days of Homicide's Second Shift. ABC later created a second Oceanic site, which tied more directly to "The Lost Experience." Still, Lost theorists scrutinized it as carefully as any other clue, looking for the answers that the series' creative team kept refusing to give.
2005: Arrested Development
The perfect sitcom for the hyperlink era, Arrested Development rewarded viewers who paid close attention by liberally sprinkling in jokes that only made sense to people who'd watched every episode—preferably more than once. And as with Felicity's Noel Crane page, occasionally Arrested Development's obsessive self-reference sprawled off the screen.
It's hard to single out just one of the show's many fake websites, but the best is probably ImOscar.com. The show's absurdity feels a little more real when viewers can hop online and read the desperate, ridiculous pleas of the imprisoned Oscar Bluth, still trying to convince anyone who'll listen that he's not his brother George.
2008: How I Met Your Mother
The same year that Arrested Development finished its ratings-challenged original run on Fox, CBS started airing How I Met Your Mother, a sitcom just as dense and self-referential as Arrested Development, but much more mainstream. Like its predecessor, HIMYM inspired a staggering number of fake websites, most of them collected on their own Wiki page. The cleverest? Tedmosbyisajerk.com, which contains a 20-minute anti-Ted song and a series of damning articles about how awful it is to date Ted Mosby (even though, in the episode that introduced the site, the woman who created it actually went out with Ted's roguish buddy Barney Stinson).
There's even an answer site, tedmosbyisnotajerk.com, which tries to prove the author of the original page is confusing Ted with Conan O'Brien. (It's a long story.) What had once been something of a lark for shows like The Simpsons and Arrested Developmenthad been refined into an art form all its own.