Our space: Net gain for 'L Word'

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NEW YORK -- Showtime Networks and Ilene Chaiken, the creator and executive producer of "The L Word," have formed a joint venture to launch a social networking site for lesbians inspired by the pay cabler's series.

The site, OurChart.com, will feature content from the series and will launch next month along with Season 4 of "The L Word." With a title drawn from one of the series' central story lines, OurChart is believed to be the first U.S.-based social networking site launched around an entertainment property. It also is the first ad-supported venture for the premium cable channel, which does not accept paid advertising on its network.

"The launch of OurChart.com speaks to the many opportunities that exist now to expand the presence of a show beyond the traditional viewing experience," said Matthew Blank, chairman and CEO of Showtime Networks, a division of CBS Corp. "It will bring the world of 'The L Word' to a whole new audience of fans."

Blank said that while the site naturally will help promote "L Word," it was created to be a totally separate stand-alone business and is in no way a "promotional stunt" for the program. "The show and OurChart will feed one another, but this is a new business that we hope will be very successful," he said. "We're hoping to create a valuable asset that produces financial results for us."

The site will be an online social networking space built to connect and engage the lesbian community as well as their friends and families and will feature original and user-generated content in addition to exclusive content from the show, Showtime said.

"L Word" cast members Jennifer Beals, Katherine Moennig and Leisha Hailey will serve as OurChart founding partners and develop content for their fans that reflects their personal interests. As founding partners, the actresses also will share in the revenue.

"This is an exciting project for us, and a great extension of what our show is about," Beals said. "For me, Kate and Leisha, it is a chance to broaden a conversation that we all have felt privileged to be a part of -- about identity and community and the importance of representation."

Chaiken, Beals, Moennig and Hailey will have personal pages on the site. There also will be celebrity guest bloggers, interactive contests related to the show and podcasts featured on OurChart. About 75% of the content will be user-generated, and the rest will be "L Word"-related material, said Chaiken, who will serve as CEO of OurChart.

"This will be the first site of its kind," she said. "It will be the first site to marry the rich, beautiful content of an established media site with interactive user-generated content, but we think it's going to be the ultimate online destination for this vibrant and engaged community. This is a place where I will make myself available to our audience in a way that I never have before."

The name of the social networking site, OurChart, is based on "L Word" character Alice's wall-sized, handwritten white-board chart that is designed to keep track of her lesbian friends' various hookups and heartbreaks. In the upcoming season, Alice puts her chart on the Internet, and it spontaneously becomes a hugely popular social networking site. Chaiken said she came up with the idea for the real-life social networking site during a meeting with Showtime marketing executives about how to promote the show.

"This is life imitates art," Chaiken said. "We decided to tell this story truly not thinking that we're going to tell this story so we can create a Web site. After we put together the script, I had a meeting with the marketing people at Showtime, and I said, 'We're telling this story about Alice's chart becoming a social networking site; why don't we build a site of our own?' This space doesn't exist for lesbians. It hasn't been claimed yet.'"

OurChart won't have the gay-targeted social networking category to itself; there are existing ventures including OutEverywhere.com and the upcoming QueensSpeech, which launches in beta next month. MTV Networks, which Showtime used to be paired with under the Viacom umbrella before the CBS Corp. split, has a growing online media presence targeting gay consumers including the brands Logo and Gay365.com.

The site also will be promoted on Showtime during behind-the-scenes interstitials about the making of OurChart.

Blank and Chaiken said they were not concerned that the association with Showtime and official "L Word" content would turn away potential social networkers looking for a pure user-generated environment free of corporate involvement or marketing messages.

"We have such a loyal audience for 'The L Word,' and I think this group wants as much from us as they can get, and that's why we're doing this," Blank said, adding that there already was a lot of social networking-type activity going on around the show such as watching the program in groups, e-mails as well as message-board activity on the official "L Word" Web site. OurChart will be targeted at the show's audience at first but then hopes to expand far beyond that, Blank said.

Hilary Rosen, former chairman and CEO of the RIAA, will serve as president of OurChart. Rosen, who worked for the RIAA for 17 years until retiring in 2003, also is an activist on gay and lesbian issues and has worked with the Human Rights Campaign on political and legislative initiatives.

"This site will be fun and interesting for users and will also present marketers with a great opportunity to reach a consumer market that is targeted, financially independent and loyal," Rosen said.

Beth Callaghan -- who has served as senior director of network programming, senior director of portal operations and editor in chief of PlanetOut Inc., the largest gay and lesbian site on the Web -- will be chief operating officer of the new company, Showtime said.

This is Showtime's second new venture with a partner outside the company since coming under the CBS Corp. umbrella. In March, the brand joined forces with the Smithsonian Institution for a video-on-demand service utilizing the Smithsonian brand.
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