How Parks and Rec Brings Pawnee to Life Online

The digital strategies behind TV shows like NBC's 'Parks and Recreation' are a balanced mix of creativity and commerce

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SCREENCAP OF WWW.KNOPE2012.COM

Pawnee, Indiana, the fictional setting of the NBC comedy Parks and Recreation, which stars Amy Poehler as peppy bureaucrat Leslie Knope, does not exist. That’s because it’s, well, fictional.

But on the Internet, Pawnee has a life of its own, and it’s more robust than many real-life municipalities. On the official City of Pawnee site, bare-bones web design straight out of the ’90s shows off pictures of the city’s parks. (In typical local-government fashion, multiple pages are under construction or out of order.) Every member of Pawnee’s city council — characters who rarely appear on the show for more than a few minutes — has their own biography. The site is full of the low-budget charm you’d expect from a town whose motto is “First in friendship, fourth in obesity.”

And it doesn’t stop there: Ron Swanson, Leslie’s curmudgeonly lumberjack of a mentor played by Nick Offerman, has a website devoted to grilling. There’s a website for Leslie’s city council campaign that features an extensive political platform and downloadable campaign song. And for every flashy business idea Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari) dreams up, you can be sure there’s a flashy website, too.

These sites are how NBC brings Pawnee to life in a non-TV medium. The network is no stranger to digital extensions of its programs — content for the web and mobile devices outside of a show’s main episodes — but in the past year, its efforts have ramped up. While Parks and Recreation isn’t the network’s leader in ratings or social-media engagement, it’s a prime example of how episodic television can use the Internet to transform the weekly fan experience into a 24-hour one.

“The show is on 30 minutes a week,” says Robert Hayes, executive vice-president of digital media at NBC Entertainment. “[The web] gives us a platform to extend the characters’ storyline beyond that, not only as the season goes on, but between seasons. The whole objective is to have a relationship with the fans. I don’t think we realized how powerful it could be, or has become.”

(VIDEO: WATCH: Vice President Joe Biden’s Cameo on Parks and Recreation)

If these web extras seem steeped in Parks lore, that’s because they come straight from the source. NBC employs embedded digital writers who work with the show’s regular writing staff to create additional material, while digital producers review scripts months in advance to scout for opportunities. Careful consideration goes into deciding what gets the push: When producers noticed that Tom Haverford’s apparel rental company Rent-a-Swag would make multiple appearances throughout the season, they made it a priority, creating a Pinterest page showing off dozens of looks. Before producers launched Ron Swanson’s Grilling webpage, they made sure they stayed true to one of the show’s most beloved characters.

“The fans really loved it because it was something they could believe was possible,” says Joya Balfour, a supervising producer for NBC.com who oversees digital content for a handful of shows, including Parks. “We are careful when we do these deeper extensions that they all make sense, that the fans would say, ‘Of course he would do that.’”

Social media also plays a huge role across NBC’s digital initiatives, and Parks is no exception. In fact, Parks’ most popular digital incarnation is its official Tumblr, which catalogs the show’s most shareable moments in bite-sized bits, like Tom and Donna’s rallying cry for self-pampering, “Treat Yo Self!” , which became a viral meme last year (the #treatyoself hashtag is still active on Twitter). But social media content also fleshes out Pawnee’s colorful characters. In one episode this past October, Leslie’s beau Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott) pops in a mixtape during a cross-country drive. While viewers only hear a bit of what’s on the CD in the episode, by the time it aired, a complete Spotify playlist of “Benji’s Cool Times Summer Jamz Mix” was already live and waiting for fans.

Ron Swanson

SCREENCAP OF WWW.RONSWANSONGRILL.COM

“Ten, 20 years ago, you would just talk at the water cooler about that great quote from Cheers last night,” Balfour says. “Now it’s, ‘Did you share that meme that Parks posted on their Tumblr last night?’ That’s how it’s translated now.”

(VIDEO: TV Tonight: Parks and Recreation Goes Big and Goes Home)

Interacting with audiences isn’t just about getting them in front of a TV, or even a particular site. Whether you’re watching The Walking Dead or The X Factor, it’s increasingly about bringing a program’s content to whatever feeds and screens the audience is paying attention to, according to Matthias Puschmann, a founding partner and managing director of VAST MEDIA, a Berlin-based agency that analyzes digital and social extensions of television programs.

“We’ve seen a lot of activity in the online sphere of promoting new formats or engaging audiences, trying to turn them into real ambassadors for their shows,” Puschmann says. “Broadcasters are engaging with audiences and creating social buzz at the same time people are posting and commenting.”

Though Puschmann says he’s noticed a surge of shows creating digital content in the past two to three years, NBC’s interest in creating online worlds actually has some history, dating back to the early years of The Office. In 2006, between the second and third seasons of the show, NBC debuted a handful of Office webisodes, short videos that focused on the show’s supporting characters (and were co-written by Parks co-creator Michael Schur. The experiment wasn’t the first use of the format, but it was a turning point for the team behind it.

“That was this seminal moment when we realized there was this fan base out there that really was searching and wanting more content than we could give them,” Balfour says. “They would just eat it up.”

From there, experimentation continued: Multiple sites like the official Dunder Mifflin and Princess Unicorn doll pages popped up, while character-themed blogs and Twitter accounts were launched as social-networking sites got big. Some of the efforts came from cast members themselves — actor Rainn Wilson wrote his Dwight Schrute character’s blog in the beginning — while others, like a regular Dunder Mifflin newsletter that’s gone out each month for several years, come from writers.

(VIDEO: WATCH: The Dunder Mifflin Ad that Aired in Scranton During the Super Bowl)

So why do NBC and other networks continue to put so much effort into the details? “Ultimately, it’s about driving ratings,” Hayes says. “The goal is to reinforce your enthusiasm about the show and ultimately watch the show.”

But digital initiatives aren’t always about quickly converting captive eyeballs into dollars. On sites like the City of Pawnee page or the Knope 2012 campaign, ad placement is minimal. With the exception of one ad at the top of the main Parks site, there’s not much directing you back to more official NBC content. And while many of the sites have an e-commerce component, too, the items offered — Ron Swanson’s barbecue sauce, for example — are amusing concepts in and of themselves. These extensions are about building a strong connection with fans — and having a good time doing so.

And if the success of ABC Family’s Pretty Little Liars is any indication — a show that despite unremarkable ratings maintains an incredibly loyal and active social media following — learning how to keep new and old fans entertained online might just be one of the best investments you can make in today’s ever-evolving television landscape.

“You can definitely identify the shows [where] fans would appreciate and want to engage with extra material,” Balfour says. “That’s why we’re putting it out there. It’s just that whole fun factor. What more can I get? What can I share with my friends?”

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