What are TV programme websites for? Or rather, who are they for?
Viewers? Advertisers? Or programme makers and broadcasters? Are they marketing and audience-building devices first and foremost or do they principally function as viewer added value, extensions of the imaginative space occupied by big programme brands?
All of the above? Or none? You decide - as that charming Geordie voiceover says on Big Brother. Big Brother is a good case in point. The programme's web presence ticks just about every box you can imagine, from brand building to interactive gambling and it's one where everyone - from advertisers and sponsors through to obsessive viewers - is happy.
That sort of thing is relatively rare though, isn't it? Contrast the bells and whistles approach with what is arguably the saddest page on the internet - www.emmerdale.co.uk. "Sorry, Emmerdale's official website is currently unavailable. But don't forget to watch every night on ITV at 7.00pm," it says.
How forlorn can you get? Actually, ITV has had a fairly patchy record in this area and, if recent events at Granada's digital content division - Granada Sport and Interactive - are anything to go by, it's still a long way from sorting out its strategic thinking. In this most recent realignment of its digital deckchairs, around 20 staff will be "let go" and the division will adopt a completely new approach.
In the future, websites for Granada-produced programmes will be developed by outside specialist agencies on a contract basis. The process will be overseen by a small group of project managers who will advise programme makers about building the right sort of interactive hooks into shows and liaise with outside suppliers, making sure, for instance, that they get grief-free access to the right sorts of source material.
The sites affected will principally be for Granada entertainment properties.
Its sporting sites - the ITV Formula One site and the sites it produces in conjunction with Arsenal and Liverpool football clubs - will be unaffected.
Max Graesser, the chief operating officer of Granada Sport and Interactive, says that the changes add up to an increase in focus at the division.
He says: "Over the past couple of years, we've carried out a whole variety of work for ITV and for third parties. What we need to do now is build a few effective interactive applications for ITV shows. It's true that the design, build and maintenance will be outsourced but the generation of interactive knowledge and expertise will remain here."
Is a refocus long overdue? ITV in general has experimented with a whole range of approaches in this sector. Take, for instance, Carlton's Night and Day (no, really, take it), one of the few examples ever of a website that's better than the programme itself. It's almost a work of art - but it doesn't tell you much about the programme. Then there are the sites that really pull people in and involve them. Such as the Premiership site and Popstars: The Rivals.
According to Alasdair Scott, the creative director of Arnold Interactive, you really do have to grasp the fundamental issues in this sector or you will get your fingers burned. These issues, he maintains, come under four main headings: relevance, day-to-day site management, demographics and revenues.
Scott states: "You have to ask yourself whether a show really needs a website and whether it produces the right sort of material. A show like EastEnders accounts for an awful lot of TV screen time and although it doesn't feature the most complex of plots, it has a lot of characters with a lot going on. So it's ideal. There's lots of material to work with and it's gossipy sort of stuff. Anything that generates news is great but other types of shows that work well are things like Wheel of Fortune that have a big gaming element."
Then there's management. This is all about having the right sorts of people running the site. Sounds simple but this is where a lot of people have fallen down. It's always interesting, for instance, to look at shows where the best websites they inspire aren't media owner sites - they're run by real fans. They don't have the inside track but they more than make up for that through raw enthusiasm. Broadcasters must at least match that.
And then there's the demographic question. Some of ITV's soaps, you suspect, struggle on this score with audiences that remain, broadly, old and downmarket.
Lastly, there's the revenue factor. If a site doesn't generate any revenues then it is, by definition, a marketing overhead. And when times are tough, that overhead is likely to be one of the first things that's cut.
"You need to tick at least three of the four boxes," Scott maintains.
"From our experience, it works best where there is a partnership. You need genuine access to the programme. You need the real in-depth stuff, you need interviews with the cast and a complete inside track."
Robert Horler, the managing director of Carat Interactive, broadly agrees. And he thinks that, by and large, ITV's efforts have been pretty decent. "The Coronation Street site is relatively popular but it's not really attractive to advertisers because there's not enough there to interact with. And, ultimately, programme websites have to be paid for."
But does he think the Granada restructure is wise in that respect? "Fulfilment may well be outsourced but the ideas people will still be where they always were. It's not uncommon - the BBC has been doing it that way for a while: it doesn't need the cost of having a full in-house design and prod-uction team. But Granada is eminently capable of managing suppliers - as all creative companies are," he concludes.