NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Can you interest a TV viewer in a new fall show when he or she is wholly immersed in the activities of early summer -- or, more removed still, enjoying older programs in the late spring? TV networks are trying to determine whether promoting new shows earlier can bring them bigger audiences come September and October.
Walt Disney's ABC sparked thoughts of fall in late April by running seconds-long promos for its new mysterious drama "Flash Forward" even before the network had publicly admitted it was picking up the show for the fall. News Corp.'s Fox, meanwhile, aggressively promoted its highly anticipated sing-along drama "Glee" by running the show's pilot after one of the last episodes of "American Idol" for the 2008-2009 season. CBS has embraced an intriguing tactic to arm itself for fall: It's giving affiliates promotional materials to tout programming in the 10 p.m. hour in advance of NBC's "Jay Leno Show" talk-show launch.
Within the industry, the failure rate for new broadcast-TV programs is widely estimated to be 75% to 80%. So it's no surprise the networks have begun to stray from business-as-usual launch plans that call for nearly all of the promotion for a new show to start mere weeks before its autumn debut. Thanks to the rise of social-networking techniques involving YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, tipping off die-hard fans to early peeks at selected programs can lead -- or so network executives hope -- to more buzz and a viral priming of the pump that create larger audiences of interest come September.
"When you launch a show in the fall, it's like the box office: You've got to get everyone there for the premiere. And then you've got to get them back for week two, which only gives you six days to convince those who want to come back and to try to get new people," explained Joe Earley, exec VP-marketing and communications, Fox Broadcasting. "What we're doing now gives us four months to try to get people to sample and come on board."
Time to break tradition
The networks aren't abandoning their pre-season maneuvers. Late August and early September have been filled for years with clever promotional stunts, such as putting ads for specific CBS programs on eggs and deli packages -- even supermarket freezer doors. Fox once orchestrated a city-by-city tour for its now canceled "Terminator" series. "There is no substitute" for heavy marketing in the weeks before a program's launch, said Rick Haskins, exec VP-marketing for the CW.
And yet the networks are realizing that they needn't stay rooted to tradition. New dramas and comedies cost millions of dollars to produce and promote, and many of them are substantially more complex and harder to explain than those of the past. "Flash Forward" centers on a worldwide phenomenon that leaves people seeing months into their future, then trying to tie their present to their visions of days ahead. "Glee" boasts a radical new concept for prime-time TV: a story about a chorale group in a local high school whose members hail from different strata of teen society (try mixing "Cop Rock" with "Freaks and Geeks"), and includes songs in every episode.
As a result, networks are starting to give certain fall-season candidates priority, and then use many different forms of media to build exposure to potential audiences, said Michael Benson, exec VP-marketing, ABC Entertainment Group. "You've got to start earlier on" TV shows, he said. Not only will ABC try to get promos in front of audiences for notable spring and summer content, such as season finales, the NBA Finals or "Wipeout," but will also use emerging venues, such as search terms and viral web sites. "We've got to go beyond just putting a promo out to build awareness," said Mr. Benson.
Indeed, many networks followed the official announcements of their fall lineups by putting up clips on their own sites and on YouTube. NBC went out and purchased ads related to keywords for its new comedy "Community" as well as the "Jay Leno Show," said Adam Stotsky, president-marketing, NBC Entertainment. "We can be there with not only links to our website but also be driving messaging through paid placement," he said. Likewise, the CW had YouTube clips of its fall dramas up online right after its upfront presentation, said Mr. Haskins, and has created "fan" pages on Facebook (As of Tuesday, a page for the coming drama "Vampire Diaries" had 7100 "friends.")
Because online media tends to attract enthusiastic niches of people with very specific interests, TV marketers end up "talking to an audience that is voracious in its appetite for information," said Mr. Stotsky. "What was historically germane to just fanboys is become how the mass mainstream is learning about new ideas, new shows, and building relationships with those shows and expectations for those shows -- well in advance of their actually coming to air."
Of course, none of this precludes the heavy hype and promotional artillery fire TV viewers come to expect as the leaves get ready to turn color. "Every year, there is more pressure to get attention," said George Schweitzer, president-CBS Marketing Group. "This is early-awareness stuff. This isn't the heavy lifting yet."