Will Snakes on a Cane Lure Viewers to Fox's 'House'?

Teaser Website Counts the Seconds Until Show's Sixth-Season Debut

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Physician, promote thyself! In an unusual maneuver, Fox has been quietly promoting its veteran medical program, "House," in order to give the sixth season a boost as it gears up to for its launch in late September -- with an idea that came from the actor who plays the title character.

The small change to the medical caduceus symbol was devised by actor Hugh Laurie.

To drive viewership of one of its mainstay programs, Fox has been teasing "House" fans with a website that depicts the medical caduceus symbol (two intertwined snakes) with a cane (much like that used by the central character) rather than the more traditional staff. Fox launched the site in July 30, then added a clock counting down to the show's Sept. 21 two-hour premier -- all with nary a mention of the program itself.

The small change to the symbol was devised by actor Hugh Laurie, said Joe Earley, Fox's executive VP-marketing and communications. He said the tweak to the familiar sign "instantly connects" to "House," but acknowledged that putting a high level of support behind a veteran returning program (Fox's promotion also has a strong on-air component to it) is atypical.

Fox has long positioned itself as having fewer financial resources than its broadcast brethren to promote its shows, so its choices each season often signal which programs it thinks are more durable and have an opportunity to grow. Many networks lend the biggest money to new programs that have no endemic fan base, or to promotions that tout the entire fall schedule. Just last week, CBS Corp. unveiled a partnership with PepsiCo's PepsiMax that would tuck a cardboard-thin video screen into select copies of a coming issue of Entertainment Weekly. The screen will play 40 minutes' worth of previews and snippets highlighting many of CBS's new shows as well as some returning comedies.

While Mr. Earley said the promotional effort originated due to Mr. Laurie's idea, "House" is of crucial importance to the News Corp. broadcast network. Last season Fox moved "House" to the 8 p.m. slot on Tuesday in order to lend support to freshman sci-fi drama "Fringe." In the process, "House" took a ratings cut, though it continues to help the network broaden beyond its traditional male-skewing audience, (which also explains why the program remains valuable to Fox even though it's produced by NBC Universal). This season, the show's timeslot changes once again: It will air at 8 p.m. on Mondays, to be followed at 9 p.m. by "Lie to Me."

Fairly unusual idea
"This was an idea that came from the people closest to the show," Mr. Earley said. Even so, he noted, "I'm fairly certain it's unusual. A show going into its sixth season normally doesn't have much support, let along something off the grid."

Since the launch of the website, Fox has used an arsenal of techniques to drum up interest -- without divulging the show the website was designed to promote until today. Among the tactics: mysterious five-second promos on the Fox network (not during "House") that featured the website's URL; street teams in several big cities -- Boston, Los Angeles and New York among them -- drawing the "snakes on a cane" symbol in various locations for three nights; distributing tattoos via street teams and at retail stores operated by NBC Universal; a viral Facebook page that promoted "House" but explained nothing; and wild postings in various cities and appearances of the symbol on the Astrovision screen in New York's Times Square.

Fox has also been promoting "House" in more traditional ways, said Mr. Earley, including promos that ran during the network's broadcast of Major League Baseball's "All-Star Game."

"'House' is getting a lot of support for the fall, and that's because we believe in the show and we don't take it for granted and we know that it's going to help us build our entire week," the Fox executive said.

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