Biz embraces 'pre-air' exposure as key tool for launching shows

Above: “Ben and Kate” (above) and “The Mindy Project” can be streamed on numerous digital platforms prior to their Sept. 25 premiere on Fox.

Putting the premiere episodes of TV series on digital platforms weeks before their broadcast debuts is proving a potent tool for boosting on-air ratings, but networks are still fine-tuning exactly the best way to make it work.

The latest example came Monday from Fox, which went about distributing pilots for its two new comedies differently than last year, when rabid pre-release consumption of “New Girl” convinced the network to take a more cautious approach this time out.

Now new half-hours “The Mindy Project” and “Ben and Kate” can be streamed on Yahoo, Fox.com, IMDB and Hulu.com, as well as the 70 other sites that host the Hulu player, including Facebook. The episodes will also be available on pay-TV VOD and can be downloaded for free on electronic-sell-through (EST) platforms including Amazon, XBox and Best Buy/CinemaNow.

Fox’s continuing belief in what some industry-ites refer to as “pre-air” distribution reflects new data Comcast is sharing with U.S. programmers that attempts to draw a causal link between early exposure for new shows in recent years across Xfinity On Demand, the cable operator’s cross-platform environment for on-demand content, and ratings increases those same shows register in their bows on linear channels.

Of all the marketing techniques at the TV networks’ disposal for the fall season, pre-air distribution may be the most counterintuitive method: Making an episode available in its entirety before its premiere off-air may help later drive tune-in on-air. At first blush, the gambit holds out the possibility of cannibalizing audience by giving the viewers most likely to watch a show’s premiere a reason to opt out of the TV exhibition window, where most money is made through ratings guarantees to advertisers.

But the flipside notion taking on increasing currency is that advance screenings could be the best way to generate buzz, converting early birds into grassroots marketing machines. There’s risk, however, of taking out a weak pilot that could make a reality the worst-case scenario of pre-emptively spreading negative word-of-mouth.

Broadcast nets have been experimenting on variations of pre-air distribution as far back as 2006, when CBS made the premiere episode of new sitcom “The Class” available on Tivo a week before its broadcast debut. The strategy didn’t keep “Class” from a short-lived run, but the network found more success a few years later with an iTunes pre-premiere for a little show called “The Big Bang Theory.”

While the networks were always more comfortable offering either episode excerpts or full-length availability after on-air premieres, the frequency of pre-air distribution has slowly climbed over the years. It’s been common practice not just at Fox but also at NBC, which has two-week pre-air berths slated this season for new series including “The New Normal,” “Animal Practice” and “Chicago Fire.”

But the availability of “Mindy” and “Ben” for two weeks nearly a month before their Sept. 25 on-air premiere marks a significant deviation from the two-week gap that separated Fox’s online preview of “New Girl” last year from its on-air debut.

The scheduling shift is an acknowledgement that the “Girl” gap worked a bit too well, according to Joe Earley, Fox’s president of marketing and communications. “Girl” episodes were viewed approximately 2 million times before its on-air premiere, so far above internal expectations that the pilot’s digital success had him sweating it would eat into “Girl’s” debut.

“We started to have concerns that cannibalization would happen,” said Earley. “One of the learnings from last year was not to let it run up to the day it airs.”

Thankfully, Earley’s fears were unfounded: “Girl” premiered strongly on air, making it one of the few breakout shows of the 2011-12 season. Comcast alone found a 15% ratings lift for the series across its subscriber footprint.

Still, it was enough of a close call to reconsider the pre-air strategy this season, where the hope is that a two-week lag between digital sampling and on-air premiere will strike a balance between whetting viewer appetites and satisfying too many of those appetites too early.

Matt Strauss, Comcast’s senior veep of digital and emerging content, says not every new series that gets pre-air distribution sees a ratings lift, but enough networks are looking to find out for themselves: More than 40 have premiered shows on VOD since February 2011.

“On demand is now becoming a meaningful platform for networks to find audiences and sampling for their shows,” said Strauss. “That’s a pretty fundamental shift in how programmers have historically looked at on demand.”

Similar to indie rollouts

Strauss drew a comparison to the many indie films that premiere on VOD these days before theatrical runs. “At this moment it’s not an area we’re currently focused on, but we’re very interested in on demand as a platform to premiere content,” he said.

Timing isn’t the only interesting change in Fox’s pre-air strategy this year. There’s been a change of heart among the network’s affiliates, who once viewed digital platforms as a threat to their own ratings. Now they recognize the additive potential. “Many affiliates are not only not expressing concern but they’re saying they want to do this on their own websites,” said Earley.

One significant absence from Fox’s comedy push is Apple’s iTunes, which was a big piece of previous online sneak peeks including “New Girl” and “Glee.” But Earley said Apple wasn’t willing to remove Fox programming for the two-week lag prior to the on-air premiere; the hope is new distribution partners like Amazon and XBox will pick up the slack. That said, EST nor online streaming contributed as much to last year’s pre-air “Girl” influx as pay TV VOD, which surprised the network.

The irony of Fox’s aggressiveness on the pre-air front is that it is the most conservative among the broadcasters on the authentication front, putting next-day access to primetime programming on an eight-day delay with the exception of subs to participating pay-TV providers.

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