Be careful what you wish for. Four months ago, I wondered why NBC Universal, a division of General Electric (NYSE:GE), was perceived as a laggard in cyberspace. The company emphasized creating stand-alone destinations, instead of snapping up popular sites like broadcasting rivals Viacom (NYSE:VIA) and FOX parent News Corp. (NYSE:NWS) were doing.

NBC's strategy made sense to me at the time:

Picture a community site for The Office, where registered guests can hang out in a virtual Dunder-Mifflin. They can share their workplace horror stories or their views on interoffice romance, but there's more to it than that. Personality quizzes that help you discover the cast member that you resemble the most? Sure, and don't forget the related avatar that visitors will be able to use as a signature file elsewhere. A weekly game casts you as a Dunder-Mifflin intern with a specific task to complete? Of course.

And it makes sense now.

"Beginning this fall, viewers will be invited to experience The Office in a whole new way," reads an NBC Digital press release issued yesterday. "There will be a multitude of interactive features, one of which will encourage users to 'work for' Dunder-Mifflin. Recruits will be asked to create their own branches and complete weekly corporate tasks."

Virtual hires? Kicking in with weekly corporate tasks to complete? I nailed it. We're nodding in sync like a Dwight Schrute bobblehead doll. To be fair, I'm no Nostradamus. NBC was already laying down the groundwork to make The Office the model for a cyberspace sitcom.

The show's hilarious original online webisodes won a Webby earlier this year, under the Best Comedy Short category. Taking a popular show and loading up the site with outtakes was obvious. However, creating a series of shorts starring the show's accounting department was sheer genius.

NBC got it, even while some assumed that the network was out to lunch

Taking the next step
NBC isn't stopping with weekly tasks at its fictional paper-supply company. "Local branches which successfully complete tasks may be integrated into an on-air episode of the show," continues the press release.

Bingo! The ability to weave yourself into a show you enjoy is too crunchy a carrot to ignore. It's not just a matter of peeling back the curtain. It's about being the curtain itself. My only hope now is that the show's Web-based incarnation doesn't blow it at this point.

The tasks had better not be corny "phrase that pays" radio-contest gimmickry. Even community-driven challenges, like photo caption contests and video submissions, may be too ordinary at this point. Let the weekly tasks be engaging, like virtual sales calls, where players need to make the right pitches to seal the deal. Reward those who try with creative desk accessories. If NBC Universal can make its virtual Office entertaining, it can go ahead and clear some shelf space to make room for more Webbys.

NBC's popular superhero drama Heroes is also getting some dot-com loving, inviting viewers online to check out character backstories and graphic novels. Next year, the series will supplement its regular season with a limited-run spinoff, Heroes: Origins. Each episode will introduce a new super-powered character, and the network promises that fans will be able to vote for their favorite of these new heroes online. The winner will eventually join Heroes' regular cast.

A few of the new shows on NBC's fall calendar also appear to be cashing in on Heroes' sci-fi success. A revamp of The Bionic Woman and the time-traveling Journeyman may seem to further distance NBC from its once-dominant role as Sitcom Central, but they should also open up juicy online possibilities if the shows are successful offline.

Indeed, there are plenty of other promising online initiatives in the works for the fall.

  • Medium will let fans pick storylines and help write an upcoming episode.
  • The new show Lipstick Jungle's website will include the make-believe Bonfire Magazine, on which the show is based.
  • NBC Fantasy Talent Scout is a Web exclusive that will give fantasy sporting leagues a primetime twist. Visitors can pick primetime cast members and earn points along the way. For my first-round pick, I'll take The Office's Michael Scott saying "that's what she said" for major points.  

Add it all up, and NBC's not looking like such a laggard after all. It remains one of the most subscribed-to channels on Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) YouTube, even after it has announced plans to team up with Fox to syndicate its content through a network of popular non-GooTube sites like Yahoo! (NASDAQ:YHOO) and CNET (NASDAQ:CNET).

NBC gets it, even if the peacock has to ruffle a few feathers to get others to notice.

It made sense then. It makes sense now. It will make even more sense tomorrow.

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Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz is a fan of both versions of The Office. He's glad to see NBC get it right after botching the U.K.'s brilliant Coupling. He does not own shares in any of the companies in this story. Rick is also part of the Rule Breakers newsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early. The Fool has a disclosure policy.