NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- ABC, Sprint and Lexus are conspiring to get people talking about the new ABC drama "Flash Forward" even when it's not on the air.
Should viewers tune in to the much-hyped drama tomorrow at 8 p.m. ET, they will see what seems like a random word posted on-screen during the program's end credits. This "keyword," which viewers will be told is sponsored by Sprint, can be texted by Sprint users to gain access to a sneak-peak video or exclusive photos.
The keyword will also help mobile users find clues to the overarching mystery at the center of the program: Why did the entire population of the earth black out for slightly more than two minutes and gain a glimpse of what they'll be doing in the not-too-distant future? Those who string words together from the first 13 episodes this fall can cobble together a sentence that will reveal bonus information about the program's central conundrum.
The ad-sponsored outreach to what will presumably be hardcore fans of "Flash Forward" is just one technique ABC is testing to boost a show that is of critical importance to the Walt Disney-owned network's programming lineup. With "Lost" entering its final run in the spring, ABC could be left without a key element of its programming block: a complex drama with a long, overarching story line that drives intense viewer interest and can be parlayed in a number of media venues.
"We are trying to line up all the pieces to drive that fan engagement," said Alexis Rapo, VP-ABC Digital Media.
Driving them elsewhere
Sprint is also sponsoring a live video chat set to take place online after the first episode of "Flash Forward" airs. Users can submit questions in real time for producers of the program to answer via a Facebook Connect application on ABC.com; the entire video will be captured and edited into segments on ABC.com for West Coast viewers. Toyota Motor's Lexus, meanwhile, will sponsor "man on the street" interview videos that ask people how they might change the way they live if they were able to catch a glimpse into the future.
"Flash Forward" is yet another example of TV networks devising concepts that can play across different media venues. It's not enough to have a once-a-week viewing opportunity. The live TV show must drive viewers to other events during the week, whether they're online discussions or mobile exchanges.
ABC's Ms. Rapo said the idea is to harness what she calls "the two-screen experience." As people watch favorite TV shows, they are inspired or driven to go to the web and seek out more information. Such activity, she said, is often at its height during the program or immediately after its live broadcast. "What we are interested in is to try and capture them following the broadcast. They are stirred to go and do something, do that deep dive that fans will do."
TV itself also remains a powerful tool. To try to draw more people in, ABC will rebroadcast the debut episode on Sept. 25, with "enhanced content" that provides insights into 11 things in the premiere that will continue to play a role in future episodes. ABC.com will offer accompanying video.
Yet the intense activity behind "Flash Forward" is no guarantee of its success. Ever since ABC's "Lost" and Fox's "24" showed an ability to last several seasons as well as move viewers to digital and mobile applications, networks have tried to launch more of these serials. Over the years, viewers may have channel-surfed through Fox's "Vanished," NBC's "Kidnapped," or CBS's "Jericho" and "Harper's Island."
Such series can give rise to a rabid fan base, devoted to every plot turn and character appearance. As TV audiences erode and fragment, if programs an draw loyal viewers, that may mean more than if they had just attracted the biggest set of eyeballs.