Debate over if sneak peeks are a smart strategy

This pilot season, networks and studios have had to adjust to a new kind of image polishing for their development prospects long before there’s even a decision on whether a pilot will be ordered to series.

Snapshots of the talent from a select few pilots vying for a place in primetime are already being disseminated by networks and studios, sparking a debate in publicity circles as to whether these sneak peeks are a smart strategy. Biz insiders say studios have no choice but to become more proactive against the threat of unauthorized images and other information becoming widely distributed via the Web and social media.

Just last week, the world got a gander at the featured trio of actresses in the latest redo of “Charlie’s Angels,” reinforcing speculation that the Sony Pictures Television pilot is a lock for ABC’s schedule.

It wasn’t the first time Sony and ABC have distributed photos of stars Minka Kelly, Annie Ilonzeh and Rachel Taylor in character. And the same goes for another fictional fighting femme: Wonder Woman.

Back in March, when Warner Bros. and NBC permitted an on-set photo of “Wonder Woman” star Adrianne Palicki, her updated costume was savaged in the blogosphere. A second set of shots of the superheroine in action on location didn’t do much to quell critics, raising the question of whether the pics were worth the trouble.

Releasing photos before the mid-May upfronts isn’t without precedent, though in past years it’s been done mostly to give publications covering the media business something to dress up stories about pilot season, not to whet appetites in the consumer marketplace for shows that may not even make it to air.

A number of top TV publicity mavens declined to discuss this subject on the record given the conventional wisdom that pilots are best kept off the radar until ordered to series. Studio publicists, in particular, are leery of doing anything that might alienate network brass, a sensitivity heightened by a vertically integrated world in which the network and studio sides often report to the same boss.

Twentieth Century Fox TV had some explaining to do when a photo from the set of “The Playboy Club” pilot for NBC made it into TV Guide. Turns out the image of actress Amber Heard decked out in retro bunny ears went wide after being taken with an iPhone camera by the actress’ sister, who posted it on her Facebook page. Incident prompted the studio to issue a ban on nonauthorized photography on the set of the high-profile pilot.

But that scenario goes a long way toward explaining why studios accustomed to keeping pilots low profile are occasionally willing to leak a sneak peek or two. It’s a defensive maneuver to counter what they consider a fait accompli: some stagehand or extra point-and-clicking with a mobile phone capable of instant distribution via social media like Twitter.

“It’s is all about controlling that first image,” one studio PR exec said.

That said, the overwhelming majority of pilots remain unexposed before the upfronts. What makes productions like “Angels” and “Wonder Woman,” different, say insiders, is the added pressure to protect so-called pre-sold intellectual property already familiar to fans. Media companies need to tread especially careful when it comes to reinventing iconic figures.

WB and NBC likely figured it would be best if the world sees Palicki as Wonder Woman packaged the way they wanted her rather than in shots by the paparazzi who could have had easy access to her when she was on location shooting an outdoor scene on Hollywood Boulevard for the pilot. But the posed photo, which first appeared in Entertainment Weekly, drew more nays than yays.

And those companies, neither of which would address the decision, may have realized that risk. Leaking the photo has been interpreted by some as a trial balloon of sorts, test-marketing whether they were going in the right creative direction with the character. That’s especially important with a superhero beloved by the Comic-Con crowd, which the industry has long believed has to be won over first; rallying the base is the best way to get that support radiating outward to more casual fans, or so the conventional marketing wisdom goes.

It may not have been a coincidence that the Wonder Woman shot was released just before MegaCon, a comicbook-oriented convention similar to Comic-Con where Palicki’s photo was topic A.

So when a second set of Palicki pics surfaced a few weeks later, not only were there some distinct differences to her costume but the very nature of the photo was different. Rather than a stiff, posed portrait, Palicki was seen in an action scene, running and looking more heroic.

Some publicists said less seasoned producers typically request that their pilots get promoted in hopes that some positive press will tip their chances of a pickup. But network decisionmakers aren’t likely to be swayed; the fate of a pilot tends to hinge on its quality or lack thereof.

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