Hottest TV previews are early, not on air


Weeks before the fall TV season officially begins, television networks are abandoning five decades of tradition in hopes of attracting younger audiences. Beginning today, two of NBC's most eagerly anticipated new dramas, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and Kidnapped, will begin arriving in the mailboxes of Net-flix subscribers who have signed up for an advance glimpse of the series.

Early next month, NBC's action drama Heroes will be available for downloading on iTunes - weeks before the show's on-air debut. American Airlines passengers, meanwhile, will be able to watch Shark, a CBS legal series starring James Woods, as well as The Class, a CBS comedy about young adults brought together by a school reunion.

And beginning this fall, fans of HBO's Baltimore-based crime drama, The Wire, will be able to purchase On Demand episodes up to six days before the scheduled Sunday night showing.

The new marketing strategy signals the networks' acceptance that they no longer can dictate when or where or how viewers watch television. Instead of relying upon splashy TV debuts during a heavily hyped fall premiere week to reach mass audiences and create buzz as the networks have done since 1950s, broadcasters are using new technologies, from iPods to DVDs, to target smaller groups of highly plugged-in consumers.

And they're gambling that these viewers will spread the word about which new shows they like before the series air.

While this strategy could backfire by siphoning off potential premiere-night viewers - resulting in lower ratings - television executives are willing to take the chance. As TV consumers increasingly access their preferred shows via On Demand TV, DVDs, cell phones or iPods, the executives say, the networks have no other choice.

"The television industry - the way you market it, the way people view it, the way you consume it - is changing dramatically," says John Miller, chief of marketing for NBC Universal Television.

"Whether you watch it on television, or you Tivo it, or you have an iPod, or get it through your computer, or through a wireless device, it's all about creating an attachment for the viewer to certain products. So, we're embracing the Web and we're embracing previews to create word of mouth and attachment for our shows. We're trying to be as up-to-speed as the environment in which we live."

That means reconfiguring traditional network strategies - whether for programs or promotions - to conform to "alternate delivery channels," according to Cindy Epley, vice president and associate media director of Eisner Communications, one of the East Coast's largest buyers of television advertising.

"Television is obviously still a mass medium, but as our population changes and our daily lives change, we are using media in different ways," Epley says. "There are lots of alternate delivery channels, and what we're seeing here is the networks exploring those channels - offering early access and more control for certain viewers in an attempt to generate buzz for ... new shows."

It is no coincidence that the viewers most likely to be using "alternate channels" are the ones television executives most want to reach: young adults between 18 and 34.

"All of the new media are grasped and used a lot earlier by young viewers," says Dave Baldwin, executive vice president for program planning at HBO. "There are an awful lot of young folks who might not subscribe to HBO because they are just starting out in setting up a household and don't have a lot of money. But then they hear about an HBO show or see it online or via DVD, and decide to subscribe."

The new marketing strategy will reach more than the young, of course. The networks also aim to connect with viewers of any age who consume several media - sometimes simultaneously - and who talk to others about them.

That's the group NBC is targeting by offering producer Aaron Sorkin's backstage showbiz drama, Studio 60, and Kidnapped, a classy serialized thriller starring Dana Delany and Timothy Hutton, to the 5 million Netflix subscribers six weeks before the series premiere.

"We see Netflix subscribers as entertainment consumers who think of themselves as discriminating and as opinion leaders," says NBC's Miller. "We figure those people who screen these shows will talk about them with a number of other people. And they are probably viewed by the people they talk to as sort of an authority. As a result of that, we'll create an evangelistic group of people for these two shows."

While that might seem overly optimistic, the strategy is sound, analysts say.

"It's brilliant," says University of Maryland media economist and historian Douglas Gomery. "They are targeting high-end, active media consumers who talk a lot to their friends and co-workers - the kind of people who once upon a time were known as `opinion leaders' in mass communications research.

"In targeting them, by the way, they are also trying to bypass the critics and old media as much as they can."

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