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TV Shows Hit the Road With Flurry of Live Events

Amantha Walden is hard at work on her next pilot — but not the type Hollywood might be familiar with.

Instead of a script, it comprises a planetarium and a 40-foot-tall inflatable castle.

Walden’s pilot is the blueprint for Adult Swim’s latest live event venture — a strategy TV shows have been tapping to engage fan bases off-screen since the early days of “Star Trek” conventions.

Today’s live events are an inexact science that nets are finessing not just to sell their products, but also to boost their off-screen relationships with their fans.

Some music-based shows, both scripted (“Nashville”) and unscripted (“American Idol”), are staging live concert tours to showcase talent and wrangle viewers; toon nets such as Adult Swim and Cartoon Network are building living, breathing worlds to service multiple-age demos; and shows with cult followings, such as “Game of Thrones,” are turning live events into social opportunities a la Comic-Con.

Walden, director of Adult Swim events, says her net’s attractions serve as off-channel programming that makes loyalty to a brand stronger by creating an insider atmosphere. “It feels like a club on a sort of level,” she says. “You’re part of something.”

Walden recently finished a tour with the Adult Swim Fun House, a free maze of insanity that made two-day stops at 10 college campuses across the nation, from California to Pennsylvania. Next up is a two-story Meatwad-shaped planetarium dome (“The Meatwad Full Dome Experience”) — complete with 360 degrees of animation inside — set to bow at San Diego Comic-Con in late July.

Adult Swim’s bedfellow, Cartoon Network, is also gearing up for a major summer project with its family-oriented Adventure at Atlantis, Paradise Island in the Bahamas. Scott Thomas, CN’s veep of consumer marketing, says this summer is the fourth iteration of the event, which this year kicked off on May 30 and included a 9,000-sq.-ft. “Adventure Time”-themed inflatable obstacle course, outdoor screenings and red carpet preems for attendees of all ages.

Per Thomas and his colleagues, if there’s not yet a demand for nets to stage live events, there’s definitely a desire. “But don’t do it if you can’t do it well,” he warns. “Do it to stoke your fan base and make it something that can be talked about and that puts life in their eyes.”

Steve Buchanan, the exec producer behind ABC’s “Nashville,” says his show has been using its newly minted live concert tour to drive viewership and enhance the skein’s on-screen story.

“It adds to the honest portrayal of what we’re trying to do, and it enhances credibility from the perspective of being able to witness in person just what these guys can do,” Buchanan says, noting the practice of live performing ups the cast’s confidence and comfort for more realistic onscreen performances.

The inaugural “Nashville” Concert Tour sold out almost instantly in all of its four Stateside markets — D.C., Gotham, Philadelphia and Chicago — while the soundtracks have sold 600,000 copies and 3 million
track downloads.

HBO’s “Game of Thrones” spread its wings on a more international level to bring its pre-existing fan base closer together with a traveling museum-like exhibition, which has bounced from Canada to the States to Northern Ireland this year.

Elana Loewenthal, director of international marketing for the cabler, notes that finding partners for live events is crucial, as they can help with some of the heavy lifting and add a pinch of experiential expertise. Of equal significance is letting the show do the work for you.

“It’s about creating something the fans really want,” she says. “You have to have the right organic idea.”

The exec calls the exhibition a miniature Comic-Con, citing long lines as an unexpected perk — since that encourages fan bonding, giving them time to dish with each other about Westeros and the latest did-you-see-that moments from season 4.

While the networks could not provide statistical evidence that live events drove viewer numbers, the execs did assert that such functions led to explosions on social media.

Jonathan Gray, a U. of Wisconsin, Madison, professor who studies TV shows and fans, likens the live-event practice to a politician’s ground game: Simply knowing that cablers find it beneficial to directly reach out to their fans has become a crucial part of how brands convince broader auds they matter. It’s also a solid way to find opinion leaders — who can evangelize for brands — in a tangible way.

Historically speaking, Gray points out that the 18-to-49 demo has been Hollywood golden goose. While it might be premature to call live events a millennial trend, Gray wonders if properly staged live events can redirect the flow of auds from second screens and streaming services back to the cable channel or programming block.

“These (events) perhaps up the ante
in terms of making destination television, the kind of thing that you’re going to
make the time to watch,” Gray says, underscoring brand loyalty. “The name of the game for Hollywood has to be to get you to pay attention.”

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