Selling Fall TV: The Most Important Shows to the Networks

Fox needs 'Gotham' to work, ABC hangs its hopes on Shonda Rhimes, and all nets seek to rise above "a bunch of big heads on billboards"

This story first appeared in the Sept. 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Like diplomatic parents, TV execs profess to love their shows equally. But some new series — spurred by critical buzz, internal favor or a combination — end up with a bigger slice of the marketing budget. A daunting 23 new scripted offerings on the five broadcast networks will roll out to start the fall season, most destined for cancellation, so the battle to be one of the lucky few is as contested as ever.

"I do believe consumers get a feeling for how much a network is behind a show," says Joe Earley, Fox's top marketer and COO of the Fox Television Group. "You have to do all of the old outreach and be on your toes with the new, social and mobile. We are more about peer-to-peer marketing than we've ever been before." At his network, debuting three dramas and one comedy, the unspoken favor is for Gotham (Sept. 22). Fox's Batman prequel can thank the genre audience for the wave of attention that carried it through the summer. It arrives as the new show with the most awareness and intention to watch among viewers, according to research firm Ipsos MediaCT.

Elsewhere, this fall has relatively low buzz. But each network has at least one or two shows getting early traction, and each is employing a different promotional strategy. NBC remains largely reliant on The Voice (Sept. 22), hoping to use the dominant singing competition to launch the comedy Marry Me (Oct. 14) and, when The Blacklist (Sept. 22) goes on hiatus, the November debut of the Katherine Heigl vehicle State of Affairs (Nov. 17) — its big play that has yet to roll out its full promo campaign. And CBS, which paid $275 million for Thursday Night Football, has tied much of its promotion to the built-in boon of the NFL. The Sept. 11 launch drew 20.8 million viewers, most of whom no doubt caught ads for priorities NCIS: New Orleans (Sept. 23) and Madam Secretary (Sept. 21).

The CW is in a similar boat to Fox's. The youngest broadcaster also has a comic book property in Arrow spinoff The Flash (Oct. 7). In addition to a splashy Comic-Con foray, a New York stunt with Flash-branded bike messengers and a tie-in with the driving app Waze, The CW's socially engaged viewers have been courted online all summer. The trailer's release in May has generated 17.7 million views to date.

"We looked at how movies market their blockbusters and how to replicate that on a TV scale," says Rick Haskins, executive vp marketing and digital programs at The CW. That bigger play — which includes a minutelong ad rolling in theaters, up from the traditional 30-second spot — is aided by the fact that The CW is launching only two shows this fall. The other, critical darling Jane the Virgin (Oct. 13), is targeting female and Latino viewers by relying on star Gina Rodriguez and positive reviews. Haskins acknowledges the luxury of a smaller stable: "It gets very diluted in the marketplace, especially now, when you drive around town and all you see is a bunch of big heads on billboards."

One network that previously employed the eggs-in-one-basket approach (see last year's Agents of SHIELD campaign) is ABC. But 2014 finds the Disney-owned net tweaking that strategy to focus on its entire Thursday block from mega-producer Shonda Rhimes. The affectionately dubbed "Shondaland Thursday" (Sept. 25) intends to put Viola Davis' How to Get Away With Murder in the best spot, following shifted hits Grey's Anatomy and Scandal. While Murder is the centerpiece, ABC's push is about the night as a whole. "We started teasing it early in the summer, creating the idea of this as a live destination," says ABC Entertainment Group chief marketing officer Marla Provencio. Live viewing, now mostly relegated to sports and awards shows, is something Rhimes' series have excelled at thanks to Twitter engagement. "We built a full half-hour TGIT [Thank God It's Thursday] preview special with Shonda, Ellen [Pompeo], Kerry [Washington] and Viola to run on the network and on local stations," adds Provencio. "They have the ability to air that as often as possible. It's just about reinforcing the idea of this as a block."

If three hours of Rhimes programming does bring in boffo live-plus-same-day ratings, it will be an outlier. Most network insiders freely admit that live tune-in never again will be the top prize in an age of fragmented audiences and TV everywhere. "When Gotham premieres, it isn't just competing with its time period," says Earley, who concedes that CBS' temporary Monday home for The Big Bang Theory will be a challenge for the freshman series. "All shows now are competing with all the content that is available at all times."