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NEW YORK — To launch their fall lineups, the major networks are turning to the Web like never before, offering viewers the chance to see premiere episodes for free and producing original content around their new series that doubles as entertainment and advertising.
All the networks except ABC are putting out at least some of the pilot episodes of their upcoming series on the Web and off, while ABC is limiting sampling opportunities to large screening events.
The free sampling strategy clearly is on the rise this year following major successes during the past few years.
NBC, which is utilizing the tactic most aggressively, is offering downloads of the premiere episodes of the new dramas “Chuck,” “Life” and “Journeyman” on Amazon.com starting Sept. 10.
Also around that date, the 4 million members of Facebook’s Apple students group will be able to exclusively download the three premiere episodes on iTunes. A week later, the iTunes downloads will be widely available.
NBC also is making the premiere episodes of “Chuck,” “Life” and “Journeyman” as well as “Bionic Woman” available as free VOD offerings on about 30 cable and satellite systems, including Comcast, Time Warner, Cox and Dish Network starting Sept. 10. A week later, streaming video of the “Life” pilot will be exclusively available on AOL, “Journeyman” on MSN and “Chuck” on Yahoo.
There also will be one more online sampling program starting Sept. 4 that involves a partnership with a major retailer, but NBC declined to provide specific details. Additionally, NBC will screen the full premiere episodes of “Journeyman” and “Chuck” on United Airlines flights.
“We’re engaged in the most aggressive sampling of any of the networks, and we have the research to back it up,” said John Miller, chief marketing officer at NBC Universal Television Group. “We generally feel (that) if someone has seen a show and liked the show, they will tell others and come back for more regardless of where they saw it. That builds ratings.”
Miller said the same sampling strategy significantly contributed to the success of NBC’s “Heroes” last season, when about 350,000 people streamed the premiere episode of the sci-fi drama on Yahoo.
Fox began offering viewers streams of the premiere episode of its new drama series “K-Ville” as well as the first 17 minutes of the Season 3 premiere of “Prison Break” on Thursday across 200 Internet portals and Web sites, including Fox.com, AOL.com, Yahoo, TVGuide.com and IGN.com (HR 8/24).
“It is critical that we embrace the Internet as a distributed medium that promotes engagement with users, wherever they are on the Web,” said William Bradford, senior vp content strategy at Fox. “This approach reinforces the importance of involving fans to assist with marketing the show through word-of-mouth and discussion forums across the Internet.”
CBS declined to provide much detail about its fall marketing plan but said that it will be offering sampling of premiere episodes. The network’s new series “Cane” and “The Big Bang Theory” will get previews on American Airlines, and one upcoming series will premiere on TiVo, though CBS declined to say which one.
ABC, the one network bucking the trend, is previewing the premiere episodes of “Pushing Daisies,” “Carpoolers” and “Samantha Who?” at red-carpet screenings attended by about 500-800 people in local markets nationwide but is not making the episodes widely available like other networks.
“We don’t release full episodes before they premiere on the network unless it’s in a big social setting,” said Michael Benson, executive vp marketing at ABC Entertainment. “It’s just something we don’t believe in. We don’t want to detract from the premiere.”
One of the “Daisies” screenings took place at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, which Benson said goes to ABC’s philosophy of “creating marketing that’s more organic to the programming.”
Meanwhile, to promote returning critical favorite “Friday Night Lights,” NBC is teaming with HouseParty.com to arrange for 1,000 of the show’s fans to host viewing parties Sept. 14, when their friends and families will get an exclusive first look at the season premiere. NBC also will screen “Bionic Woman” at the Universal Studios theme park in Orlando.
The CW network is orchestrating “Gossip Girl” viewing parties at 20 sororities around the county.
In addition to free previews, another recently introduced strategy for marketing TV series is on the rise this year. The networks are relying more heavily than ever on creating all sorts of original content around their series and distributing it as widely as possible on the Web.
“Our advertising becomes content that people want to see in shortform,” CBS Marketing Group president George Schweitzer said. He declined to provide specifics on the content the network is producing but said music videos and video mashups of the “CSI” franchise were examples of the type of content CBS would be distributing on its Interactive Audience Network, which he said reaches 90% of the people online. “We’re taking our content to where the eyeballs are,” he said.
The CW is creating “Gossip Girl” widgets that will play clips from the show and run real-life gossip news via an RSS feed supplied by People.com. The widgets will be available on cwtv.com and in CW banner ads through other sites.
In addition, CW has created a virtual replica of Manhattan’s Upper East Side for “Gossip Girl” that allows viewers to create avatars and become virtual residents visiting the same New York locations the series’ characters frequent. Fans also can use clips from the series to create their own “Gossip Girl” music videos, which can include personal pictures and videos and be distributed through mobile devices.
NBC has created several Web sites to help market its series as well. ChucksSecret.com allows visitors to read the “Chuck” title character’s e-mails, download his favorite music, view photos and interact with the virtual character, a computer geek-turned-government agent.
There also will be two “Bionic” sites. The first, at NBC.com, features a game that allows you to test your bionic skills, with higher scores unlocking video content from the series. In an effort to virally spread the game, players will be able to create widgets of “Bionic” badges displaying their scores that they can use to challenge their friends. The other site tied to the show is EthicalBionics.org, representing the mystery organization from the series called the Center for Ethical Bionics. The site references some of the themes and characters in the show without directly mentioning it.
“It’s designed for a niche audience and a passionate fan base to build the groundswell in a real viral way,” Miller said. NBC also is producing a couple of music videos, including “Free Earl,” to promote returning comedy “My Name Is Earl.”
As part of its efforts to create original Web content, ABC is producing music videos for “Desperate Housewives,” “Ugly Betty,” “Private Practice” and several other series.
NBC also is previewing content pieces or trailers in about 16,000 National CineMedia theaters to promote its fall lineup. Popcorn bags, standees in theater lobbies and clips on lobby screens also will promote NBC series.
Several of the networks also are expecting to get additional promotional support from advertisers integrated into certain shows. ABC said it is talking to integration partners on “Dirty Sexy Money” and “Big Shot” but declined to provide specifics. NBC said it expects additional promotional support from returning integration partner Nissan on “Heroes.”
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