To be sure, the Denis Leary-produced laffer – the first original sitcom to run on the NBCUniversal cabler in years – will have a “first” episode that kicks off the series’ storyline. But to promote the program in the days leading up to its March 6 premiere, USA will use the third episode of “Sirens” as a sample of sorts, making it available on video on demand on various cable systems to as many as 50 million homes starting Thursday.
“You have to enable people to – on their own terms, on their own platforms –sample these shows,” said Alexandra Shapiro, USA’s exec veep of marketing. “This notion that you go out and make it and people will come to you is, I think, something of yesteryear.”
While several TV networks have previewed shows that have yet to launch available via new technology in the recent past, USA is testing the unorthodox strategy of using an episode in the series that is not the first, typically the calling card of any new program. Pilots have for decades been the starting ground of many TV series, which are – for good or ill – often judged on the merits of that single episode.
USA wanted to offer potential viewers “less about exposition, about setting up the relationships,” said Shapiro, and instead give them a taste of the program that was “purely about the comedy.” USA will highlight “Episode 104” of “Sirens,” the fifth episode produced and third slated to be shown in traditional fashion on the network.
Making “Sirens” as appealing as possible is a piece of a critical mission these days at USA, which is attempting to expand to comedy after years of featuring fun, character-driven dramas such as “Covert Affairs” and “White Collar.” After investing heavily in re-airings of “Modern Family,” USA now hopes to build a pipeline of sitcoms to go alongside current shows like “Suits.”
The series, which is executive produced by Leary and Bob Fisher and stars Michael Mosley, Kevin Daniels, Kevin Bigley and Jessica McNamee as fun-loving Chicago EMTs and cops, is eyebrow-raising for USA. Execs at the network cannot recall an original comedy series running on the network since a made-for-TV version of “Weird Science”aired between 1994 and 1998 and the animated “Duckman,” featuring the voice of Jason Alexander, appeared between 1994 and 1997. “We are in the process of diversifying our programming base,” said Shapiro. “And while scripted drama has and continues to be our bread and butter, we still want to expand our reach.” The network is preparing to launch several new comedies, Shaprio said.
The comedic salvo is part of a larger effort to draw new audiences to USA, thereby increasing the network’s appeal to cable and satellite distributors. In 2013, according to SNL Kagan, USA won 71 cents per subscriber per month from affiliates, but Time Warner-owned rival TNT was able to get $1.24.
To get the word out about the VOD sneek-peak, USA has created special promos that will be aired by cable systems. The spots will feature Denis Leary and cast members talking about “Sirens,” and USA’s Shapiro hopes to use Leary’s celebrity to generate more attention for the program. “You can’t underestimate the power of Denis Leary. He is an iconic actor with a distinctive voice and his fan base is rabid,” she said. “We are going to lean in with using him to the extent we can to help drive interest.”
USA has used video on demand to spark buzz about its show in the recent past. Last year’s “Graceland” got similar treatment, though the pilot was the episode made available. “There is little to no evidence that it cannibalizes the linear broadcast premiere,” Shapiro said. Meanwhile, availability of the episodes gets people talking about the program, she added, and can generate social-media buzz. “This is not the last time we’re going to do this.”