UPN launches pricey push for laffer

UPN has what’s shaping up to be the season’s best-reviewed new comedy with “Everybody Hates Chris.” Now the net just has to get viewers to watch.

To woo auds to the Chris Rock/Ali LeRoi-created laffer, UPN has launched the most ambitious marketing and promotional campaign in its 10-year history. Goal of the multimillion-dollar effort is to get the “Chris” pilot in front of as many as eyeballs as possible — even before the show’s official debut Sept. 22 at 8 p.m.

“We’re spending more money on this than any other promotion in UPN history,” said CBS/UPN marketing guru George Schweitzer. “They’ve delivered to us a great pilot, and we want to get this out in as many places as we can.”

Marketing campaign for Paramount Network TV-produced “Chris” includes at least a dozen components, one of which is a deal with American Airlines to put the “Chris” pilot in front of some 4 million passengers during September flights — a first for the Viacom-owned nets.

“Before it goes on the air, it’ll premiere in the air,” Schweitzer quipped. “They won’t have to pay a thing, and we know they’re going to see it. They have no place to go.”

Launching “Chris” is critical, since the preseason buzz surrounding the show was a major reason Madison Avenue bet big on “Chris,” helping UPN to a record upfront haul. Ad buyers will be watching closely to see if the series delivers on the promise of its pilot.

In addition, while UPN is hardly the only net mounting a major campaign on behalf of a new fall show– try to escape ABC’s relentless tubthumping for “Commander in Chief” — hyping “Chris” poses some unique challenges.

For one thing, smaller webs like UPN and WB get very little viewership during summer months. By contrast, the Big Four can usually count on getting a substantial number of viewers to a new show just by hyping it on their own airwaves.

What’s more, UPN faces the difficult task of not just launching a show but of transforming an entire night.

In one of the season’s biggest scheduling gambles, net moved “WWE Smackdown!” to Friday nights in order to slot “Chris” on Thursdays. Weakness of NBC’s “Joey” convinced execs there was room for a new comedy in the slot once ruled by “Friends” and, two decades ago, “The Cosby Show.”

“This is a game-changing move for UPN,” network prexy Dawn Ostroff declared in the spring. “We believe Chris Rock will have a huge impact on UPN (and that) the coming season will be a turning point in our competition with the WB.”

Hence the high-profile hype:

  • Millions of DVDs of the pilot are being distributed across the country, many by street teams handing them out at major events like this month’s X Games and next month’s Emmy parties.

Street teams have even been handing out the DVDs outside movie theaters Friday and Saturday nights during big opening weekends, and subscribers to Entertainment Weekly will find a copy of the full pilot in an upcoming issue.

Discs being handed out come in a bright yellow package so that “even if you don’t watch the pilot, we’ve reached you with the advertising” on the wrapper, Schweitzer said.

  • The front of every New York City MTA bus — all 5,000 of them — will be emblazoned with “Chris” ads throughout September. UPN also bought all the ad space at Grand Central Station next month for a “Chris” blitz.

Helicopters and planes will fly “Chris” banners in Gotham and L.A.

  • Trailers for “Chris” will run in more than 1,400 AMC theaters as well as at an additional six dozen Magic Johnson Theaters.

  • UPN is also on track to hand out 1 million bumper stickers and T-shirts that read “Honk if You Hate Chris.” On a recent weekend, hundreds of shoppers at the Westfield Century City mall in West L.A. discovered the “Chris” bumper stickers on their windshields.

  • Rock, who narrates “Chris,” will be front and center on the talkshow circuit next month, touting his series almost as aggressively as if it were one of his tentpole features. UPN and Par’s PR teams have also been working closely on a massive press campaign for the skein.

  • Look for a massive cable ad buy in the week leading up to the “Chris” premiere. Viacom-owned radio stations will also push the skein — when they’re not hyping CBS shows, that is.

Because UPN’s young adult target aud is “doing other things” besides watching TV during the summer, Ostroff said the net had no choice but to go after them in other ways.

“We need to be very creative to reach people,” she said, with Schweitzer adding that it was crucial to “get the chatter going.”

Three other comedies will air on UPN on Thursdays, but none of them will get the same promo push as “Chris.” That may get other producers peeved, but Schweitzer says opening the night has to be UPN’s top priority.

“The night is all about ‘Everybody Hates Chris,’ ” he said. “As ‘Chris’ goes, so goes Thursday.”

Ostroff noted that all nets “pick one or two shows to really focus their attention on,” and said that if “Chris” works, it will help other shows on UPN. “A rising tide lifts all boats,” she said.

Big promo push, plus the critical raves, is bound to lead to expectations of a big premiere night number for “Chris.” Ostroff already is trying to manage expectations.

“Launching a show on UPN is not the same as on CBS or another network,” she said. “It takes a while for us to find an audience and for our audience to find us.

“We’re going to be patient.”

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