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Attachments article

LONDON — Imagine hiring Ally McBeal as your lawyer or calling Dr. Frasier Crane for therapy.

Further blurring the line between entertainment and reality, a new British television drama features the crew at an Internet startup — and a real-world Web site — glitches and all. Called “Attachments,” the British Broadcasting Corp. show includes such characters as Mike Fisher, the failed musician turned Web entrepreneur; his sexy wife and business partner Luce; Brandon, the geeky programmer; and Sophie, the gay Web editor.

Outside of TV land, in the real world of the Internet, a half dozen or so Web developers and editors are responsible for the program’s companion Web site, seethru.co.uk. There, characters from the show interact with the public, share weekly music picks and publish their manifestos on pop culture — spouting off about pet peeves ranging from bland women’s Internet portals to grating Web jargon.

Not that the weekly show doesn’t have plenty of Web-speak of its own.

“It’s attitude. It’s unapologetic. It’s its own thing,” the character Mike enthuses about the start-up site to one potential investor. After finally raising venture capital, he snorts a line of cocaine and says incredulously of his backer: “He is going to give us a stash of cash and we don’t know what the [expletive] we’re doing. This is something I cooked up in my bedroom.” While the program has a surface similarity to the “Survivor” and “Big Brother” genre in crossing over between entertainment and real life, there’s an important difference: In “Attachments,” the product being created by Mike and the other TV-show characters is actually available in the real world.

“This is the point,” says the show’s producer Tony Garnett. “The idea of an audience in a continuing drama identifying with characters and playing the game — that it’s those very characters creating the Web site and that have a presence on the Web site — connects the two emotionally.” After three episodes with titles such as “Just Upgraded” and “Plug & Play,” the prime-time show is attracting some 2.5 million viewers, a good showing for a new series in a country with 23 million TV households. The Web site now garners more than 1,000 unique visitors a day.

Negotiations are already under way, says the 64-year-old Mr. Garnett, to sell the program and the Web-site concept to the U.S., Japan and several European countries.

Critics in Britain have been split. The Sunday Times gushed that the program “depicts workplace dynamics with bewitching brilliance,” while The Independent pronounces it uncool: “Cool means never showing the strain, and if ‘Attachments’ carries on the way it started, it’s headed for a hernia.”

“Attachments” is the brainchild of Mr. Garnett, a veteran producer whose credits include the feature film “Earth Girls Are Easy” and such U.K. television dramas as “This Life” and “The Cops.” He noticed that today’s Internet army members are consumed by their jobs, and figured he could come up with enough mini-crises — such as cash-flow problems and flare-ups between prima donna Web designers and stubborn programmers — to sustain a series. “There’s something quite frantic about this New Economy,” he says.

The actual site’s evolution, in fact, follows the TV show’s plot. When the program began airing, the show’s Web developers put up a music site matching the one that Mike devised in his make-believe bedroom. Later, when a Web designer on the show accidentally lost the entire Web site, the characters scrambled all night to hastily reconstruct it — with typographical errors, broken hyperlinks and other problems. Keeping with the story line, the Web site itself suddenly developed similar hiccups.

All this has understandably created some confusion among fans — to the delight of the program’s creators, who haven’t made clear to the public what’s going on. One online visitor wrote an e-mail to the Web team, mocking the BBC for failing to realize that the domain name seethru.co.uk had obviously already been taken by the Web site.

A key developer of the Web site, David McCandless, was chosen in part because of similarities to character Mike Fisher. Like Mike, the shaven-headed Mr. McCandless is a musician who recorded music in his bedroom and put it online. He responds to many of the Web site’s 30 daily e-mails as Mike Fisher.

Recently, Mr. McCandless wrote a letter to the editor of a London magazine, The Face, taking issue with the hip publication’s lack of medical information in a story about drug overdosing. He signed the letter Mike Fisher.

“There’s nothing in the letter that suggests it’s a joke,” says Johnny Davis, the 80,000-circulation style magazine’s editor, laughing off the incident.

To create “Attachments” and the Web site, Mr. Garnett assembled a cast of traditional scriptwriters and experienced Web editors. The scriptwriters popped in on dot-coms and cruised industry networking events. The Web crew taught the actors about the Internet, including lessons about what’s cool online, and trained them how to play sophisticated video games — the signature hobby of Brandon and other characters.

There’s a distinctly tongue-in-cheek tone to some of the Web site’s offerings, including free music downloads of artists such as Toby (“sparse angst-rock of some quality”) and Richie (“seven long years making music nobody has heard”). There’s also the geek test: “The geek shall inherit the earth apparently,” the site informs. “Test your readiness now.” The TV show in some ways seems more realistic than real Internet life. Shorn of all the industry’s marketing gloss, there are no Evian-swilling, MBA-armed entrepreneurs in evidence. Instead, there’s a married couple who risked their home to build a Web business, and still take no salary. By episode three, the copy machine has been repossessed. Employees bicker. When all seems on the verge of collapse, the team hits the pub to dull their senses.

“The thing I love about the Net is it’s actually fairer than real life,” Mike says in the show. “If you’re good you’ll be noticed.” Mr. Garnett hopes that seethru.co.uk will get enough attention to break even in a year. The Web site is a joint venture between BBC Worldwide, the commercial arm of the BBC, and Mr. Garnett’s independent production company, World Productions.

“Marketing is the biggest spend of any startup,” says Mr. Garnett, who boasts that the Web site doesn’t have to advertise because “we have the show.” Jane Root, who commissioned the show for BBC2, says the program’s budget runs about 400,000 pounds (666,320 euros) per episode. She says Mr. Garnett’s track record and the Internet angle were both factors in her decision to give the go-ahead — and she’s satisfied with the reaction so far.

“Some people hate it and some people adore it, and that’s exactly right,” she says.

Copyright © 2001 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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