Kevin Reilly had barely finished unveiling the new NBC fall sked to advertisers earlier this month when the Peacock hype machine started spinning into overdrive.
“Starting right now, you can get a sneak peek at all our great shows coming this fall to NBC,” a seductive female voice cooed during a promo spot the net aired during the May 14 episode of “Heroes.” It had been less than six hours since Reilly stepped off the stage at Radio City Music Hall, and already his net was directing viewers to surf over to NBC.com to begin previewing clips of new shows.
In the age of viral media, the days in which broadcasters had a couple of months to plan their fall launch strategies are over, replaced by a new urgency in which the nets are rushing to get ahead of the buzz curve.
“Our business has become a 365 days a year cycle,” says ABC marketing chief Mike Benson. “There is no downtime. As soon as we got back from the upfronts, we were putting our plans together.”
Benson says TV types are taking a page from their film peers. Rather than treating new shows as cogs in the overall sked, webheads now see their skeins as individual tentpoles that need specific nurturing.
“Much like studios launching a ‘Superman’ or a ‘Pirates of the Carribean’ movie, we know how important it is to get some buzz out there as soon as possible,” Benson says.
The Internet has become a key component in getting that buzz started quickly.
Last year around upfront time, the networks were still digesting the impact of the viral video phenom on their businesses. Some were taken aback when clips from their pilots started showing up on YouTube.
This year, for the first time, all the major networks had clips of their newcomers online within minutes of their upfront presentations.
While the nets are trying to steer viewers to watch these clips on their respective websites, they’re also freely giving scenes from shows to outside sites such as Yahoo! and even TV-centric blogs.
“Everyone’s hungry now to see these new shows,” says Chris Carlisle, head of marketing at Fox Broadcasting. “We’re looking to feed that.”
NBC Agency topper John Miller says the upfronts “now get covered like a sporting event. Once shows are announced, people want to have information.”
That’s particularly true this year, thanks to the flood of sci-fi and fantasy-themed newcomers. “Bionic Woman,” “Chuck,” “Pushing Daisies,” “Moonlight” and “The Sarah Connor Chronicles” feature conceits bound to make hardcore TV fans giddy with anticipation.
Once again ripping a page from the feature marketing playbook, nets are now actively courting the fanboys (and girls) who are so key to starting up pop culture phenoms.
NBC discovered just how valuable the geek squad can be last year when it targeted the demo on behalf of “Heroes.”
Even before the show was greenlit, NBC marketing execs began hatching plans for a vibrant Web site on behalf of the show, including an interactive comicbook previewing plotlines in the show. Skein also had a major presence at Comic-Con in San Diego.
“When we took ‘Heroes’ there, the word of mouth was very positive, and that helped start the buzz,” Miller says.
NBC has been planning a similar push for “Bionic Woman” for weeks. And once the net saw “Chuck,” Miller says it began planning to bring it to Comic-Con as well.
One potential downside of the early pushing: It’s just as easy for Netizens to slam a show as to praise it. Skeins with out-there premises (think ABC’s “Cavemen”) risk building a bad buzz before anyone’s even seen a full episode.
Not all of the nets’ marketing plans are cutting-edge.
One tool that’s become increasingly popular for marketing execs is early on-air teaser campaigns. Anyone watching the season finale of “Grey’s Anatomy,” for example, couldn’t miss the flood of spots touting a slew of new ABC skeins, from “Grey’s” spinoff “Private Practice” to laffer “Sam I Am.”
Touting frosh fare months in advance is nothing new.
“I can remember cutting a spot for ‘L.A. Law’ that aired during (the finale) of ‘Hill Street Blues,’ ” Miller says.
What’s different is the prevalence of such promos. Once reserved for a handful of high-profile shows, nets now spend much of the last week of the season touting almost all of their newcomers.
“This is the last big opportunity (before the summer) to reach a bulk amount of viewers,” Miller explains. “That 7.4 demo rating that saw our ad for ‘Bionic Woman’ during ‘Heroes’ — you’re not going to get that number again” until the fall.
But just as quickly as they’ve ramped up the hype for the newcomers, look for nets to slow things down just a bit over the next few weeks — after all, they also need to promote their summer shows.
And because they’ve only got — at most — 44 minutes of pilot footage to play with at this point, network marketing execs want to make sure viewers don’t tire of seeing the same spots with the same scenes over and over again.
“You have to be careful not to burn stuff out,” Carlisle says. “You don’t want to bleed something dry.”
Come July, however, expect the marketing buzz to turn into a roar. Web sites for new shows will become more intricate than ever, and most nets — ABC is a notable exception — are planning to continue the recent practice of distributing full episodes of pilots to a wide audience.
A number of viral marketing initiatives are also in the planning stages, though such plans are being kept top-secret in order to thwart copycats.
Taken as a whole, execs such as ABC’s Benson believe this summer’s marketing efforts could be the most complicated yet.
“It’s really become this 3-D chess game,” Benson says. “You’re trying to figure out who your core audience is for a show, who else might watch it and then try to fit each of those messages to each different medium.”
Benson says the key for networks is to make sure auds don’t feel like they’re being oversold.
“We want people to be entertained by our marketing,” he says. “We want it to be as unexpected and surprising as our shows.”