Stars of frosh class

Nets turn 'niche' shows into hits

Amid the gloom and doom of layoffs and primetime woes, Peacock execs last week could at least take comfort in their new “Heroes.”

The drama has turned into this season’s biggest frosh hit, scoring series highs Oct. 23 and giving an embattled NBC team something to cheer about.

On paper, “Heroes” reps this year’s most unlikely candidate for top-rated new adult 18-49 skein — a sci-fi genre piece in which regular folks suddenly acquire superpowers. A show that seemingly appeals to the limited teen acne-set could have been destined for the Sci Fi Channel.

Not so fast, say NBC’s kings of marketing, John Miller and Vince Manze.

First off, Manze points out, the network never used the word “powers” to describe the show’s characters. That’s the stuff of comicbooks.

“We were careful to use the term ‘abilities,’ ” notes Manze — as in, “ordinary people who discover they possess extraordinary abilities.” That’s the stuff of top-rated adult drama.

That broad sell has paid off: “Heroes” is indeed tops among young viewers this fall.

Consider this the year narrow-targeted shows (on paper, at least) wound up boasting the broadest appeal.

“Heroes,” with its super — er, heroes, ABC’s “Ugly Betty,” an hourlong comedy set in the fashion world and based on a telenovela, and CBS’ “Jericho,” about the aftermath of a nuclear explosion: All three should be niche hits at best.

Instead, they’re considered the season’s biggest success stories.

First off, they look nothing like the procedural dramas that clog primetime slots — or anything else for that matter. Breakout thesps like “Heroes'” Masi Oka and “Ugly Betty’s” America Ferrara aren’t the kind of faces you’re used to seeing in primetime. And given how full most viewers’ plates already are, it’s the uniqueness of the premise and characters that has people coming back: the underdog you want to root for (“Ugly Betty”); the son who returns home (“Jericho”) and the discovery of something extraordinary about yourself (“Heroes”).

By focusing on those themes — and at the same time targeting the core auds that could help open the show — network marketers managed to launch all three to stronger-than-expected numbers.

In the case of “Heroes,” Miller says NBC felt it had more than a sci-fi show on its hands.

“From the early testing we did, we realized that this show was potentially broader,” he says. “There was a real human aspect that we wanted to embrace.”

But first, to build buzz, the Peacock took the series to the ComiCon tradeshow, where hundreds were turned away from a screening room that held 2,000.

NBC managed to hook early believers in the show — so much so that at least 60 “Heroes”-oriented Web sites were launched before the Peacock even debuted its own.

“We couldn’t even buy ‘,’ ” Miller says. “The fan was so rabid, he refused to sell it to us at $10,000.”

But even in marketing to the base, Manze says the network never touted it as a purely sci-fi show.

“Sci-fi geeks like adult mysteries too,” he says. “Otherwise, if you go too sci-fi, you’re going to be very narrow. We never altered our creative message. But we went to them first so that they would act as messenger.”

Beyond that, potential viewers had several opportunities to catch “Heroes” before it launched — including on iTunes (via free passes handed out at select theaters) and on Yahoo.

“All summer long, it had the highest intent-to-view numbers of any new show,” Miller says. “The title of the show had something to do with it — ‘Heroes.’ We knew that if we got it exposed to as many people as we could, they’d be interested in it.”

Over at ABC, “Ugly Betty” at first didn’t appear to be a top priority at the net, which had scheduled it in a ho-hum Friday-night time period.

But then the buzz grew. And the critics raved. ABC realized it had more than a quirky little comedy with a sudsy twist on its hands — and moved it to the more competitive (and prominent) slot in front of “Grey’s Anatomy.”

To drum up a core following, ABC tapped into Hispanic marketing — which made sense, given “Betty’s” Latina star and its telenovela roots. For the first time, the Alphabet web hired a specialized agency to target the Latino market.

But while “Ugly Betty” is set in the fashion world and boasts a strong Hispanic family at its core, the show has garnered impressive numbers by promoting its comedic chops and focusing on the show’s main character.

” ‘Ugly Betty’ may seem narrow, but her story is a universal one,” says Marla Provencio, ABC Entertainment senior VP of marketing. “People can identify with her. She’s a hero we wanted to cheer for — and that helped broaden it out.”

And just like NBC shied away from highlighting the sci-fi aspects of “Heroes,” ABC didn’t dwell on the portions of “Ugly Betty” that might alienate certain viewers — such as its fashion-world setting.

Instead, the network focused on the character of Betty. Billboards and posters for “Betty” simply showed the character decked out in her trademark glasses and wide, braces-bearing grin.

“It was all about Betty,” Provencio says. “The character offers so much. Men and women can relate — this is a character who feels good in her own skin.”

Of course, all the marketing in the world wouldn’t keep viewers glued to these shows — it’s the writing, acting and production values that are bringing them back week after week.

“Heroes” creator Tim Kring hails from the worlds of relationship drama (“Providence”) and procedural hourlongs (“Crossing Jordan”), blending both forms with a dash of sci-fi. It clearly works: Viewership continues to explode, particularly as the show’s current storyline — dubbed intriguingly, “Save the Cheerleader” — gains steam.

As for “Ugly Betty,” showrunner/exec producer Silvio Horta managed to adapt a wildly successful telenovela for American auds, cranking up the camp factor and contrasting the lead character’s sweetness with the crass world around her.

The result, in both cases: Shows distinct from much of the new fare that arrived at the same time, yet broad enough to play to the whole Nielsen room.

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