Getting Buzzed: Why the "Releasing Pilots Online Early" Trend Makes Sense for Networks

This week, NBC’s two big new comedies Go On and The New Normal premiered in their Tuesday timeslots. However, the episodes that aired were not the show's pilots but instead their second episodes. Of course, that’s because NBC spent the last month trying to get everyone on the planet to watch the pilots for Go On and The New Normal—and Animal Practice as well—first airing Go On and Animal Practice during the Olympics, then putting both pilots online soon after. Later, the network posted The New Normal online, and then aired and re-aired The New Normal and Go On pilots, respectively, on Monday night after the Season 3 premiere of The Voice.

Although the post-Olympics and post-Voice move isn’t new—putting an important pilot behind popular "event" programming is straight out of the broadcast network playbook—making the episodes available so early online is a much more recent phenomenon. And NBC, which also posted new J.J. Abrams drama Revolution, is not alone. Fox made the Ben and Kate and The Mindy Project pilots available soon after NBC pulled the trigger, and ABC made Last Resort available earlier this week. There are 21 new shows debuting on the broadcast nets this fall, and as of now, with some time to go before certain premieres, a third of those premiere episodes are already online.

Networks have been releasing chunks of episodes early for a while now (I vaguely remember watching a few minutes of a Lost premiere and ABC definitely released the opening 12-15 minutes of FlashForward online early) but the dissemination of full pilot episodes has really picked up over the last three years. In 2009, both Modern Family (Amazon) and Community (Facebook) were made available before their first television airing. Fox also released a director’s cut of the Glee pilot that aired on the network at the end of the 2008–2009 season on Hulu before the proper season began. I’ve been told that Lone Star and No Ordinary Family were out there well before the 2010–2011 season began.

Last season, Fox made New Girl available literally everywhere before its premiere, NBC did similar things for Whitney (for some reason) and Grimm, while both The Secret Circle and Hart of Dixie were up on iTunes a few weeks early. In the midseason, you couldn’t escape the Smash pilot, and Awake's was available, too.

Surely, there are a number of episodes and shows I’m forgetting—we haven't even talked about cable—but that only serves to reinforce the point more: More and more, pilots are being made available before (and sometimes WAY before) their official television airdates. The biggest question with this trend is also the easiest one to ask: Why do it?

For the viewers, pilots being available early is nothing but a plus. Seeing things early is cool. Early releases give us time to watch a pilot we might otherwise skip because of the oppressive bombardment of new shows and episodes in late September and early October.

But I can’t imagine that the networks and studios are giving us premiere episodes four weeks before the “real” premiere just to make us happy. That’s silly. Yet, in an era when good Nielsen ratings are hard to come by and the competition is at a very high level, it does seem somewhat wild that the networks would be willing to chance losing a big first-episode number during the real TV season (when ad dollars are higher) just so that they maybe convince a few more people to sample a show they would have ignored otherwise.

Nevertheless, this move toward early access to episodes tells us something crucial about the changes within the television industry: Buzz is more important than ever before. Maybe not more important than ratings—which aren't going away despite just about everyone’s frustration with them—but it's inching closer in importance.

The growing value of buzz

While the networks still hold on to the Nielsen ratings to rake in the ad dollars, they are smarter than we give them credit for. They are very aware of how much people love to talk about television... and how they tend to do so in very public, shareable ways. Not everyone live-tweets The X Factor, but the social aspect of television has translated masterfully to social media. The networks have figured that out and in recent seasons, we’ve seen more promotions keyed into Facebook and watched the networks start pushing hashtags on-screen in hopes of trending on Twitter. We are talking about and interacting with shows on social media anyway, so it’s smart for the networks to try to guide or supplement that discussion and interaction.

By releasing pilots or season premieres (or really any episodes) early, the networks are able to foster conversation early and during a theoretically less crowded time, allowing for fans and social media to do a big part of the opening promotional push for them. Instead of pushing the content onto the audience on television and with television promotion, the networks have learned to step back and let the very interested and active viewers pull it from them. You’ll notice that Fox hasn’t been running primetime promos telling viewers that they can watch The Mindy Project pilot online right now. Instead, it just put the episode up, sent out a press release, and let the online media machine—yes, including—and social media do the work. If you want it, you can go get it.

One curious side effect is that, in a way, this approach is creating two distinct groups of viewers. Networks have learned to use social media or put content online as a way to cultivate a certain discussion or fandom online, but they haven’t stopped using traditional methods of promotion like quick clips during a sporting event, trailers, or what have you. And neither technique directly addresses the other. The networks know they’re going to pull in some “traditional” viewers and some viewers who love social media, but both methods work to get more of each group. (However, a problem might arise in instances like NBC airing the second episodes of Go On or The New Normal in their supposed "series premiere" timeslots. It's possible that the viewers not keyed in to the online discussion or these sneak peaks might be confused when they are presented with the second episode first.)

In the best-case scenario, the networks hope that those of us who “go get it,” so to speak, spread the word in some way—maybe we tell our friends at lunch, maybe we share the availability on Facebook, maybe we talk about how The New Normal is a mess on Twitter. It seems like the networks are willing to bet that the losses they might accrue in pilot ratings are worth the possibility of much larger gains in general interest, which could turn into full-time investment. They’re taking a chance on sacrificing the short term to improve the long term. And it’s even possible that the word-of-mouth works well enough that more people end up watching live that first night anyway, or that the buzz translates to higher ad rates later (so cha-ching).

But does it work?

In theory, then, what seems like a weird and stupid decision is actually kind of smart. And as we’ve seen already at the outset of the season, certain media outlets are already reporting on which shows have the most buzz. At the end of August, The Hollywood Reporter published a report on the shows that are dominating the social media chatter, and wouldn’t you know it, many of the shows that top that list were made available online (or after the Olympics). And doing a story on what shows are the most-discussed only further stokes the fire of that discussion. It never stops.

Even though allowing the viewers to do some of the marketing heavy lifting is smart and perceptive, it’s still tough—especially for us on the outside—to determine if this tactic actually works. Modern Family and New Girl debuted strong in 2009 and 2011 respectively and went on to anchor their nights for the whole season. Community’s pilot is still its highest-rated episode, but that’s mostly because it aired after a season premiere of The Office. Whitney and Grimm didn’t light the world on fire for NBC last season, though their pilot ratings were decent. Lone Star was a dud, Awake didn’t do that much better (sorry, Kyle Killen), and even Smash, a show that also had an annoyingly expansive promotional push on television, debuted to lower-than-expected ratings.

So, maybe it works. Maybe it doesn’t. There’s no way to prognosticate what would have happened to New Girl had it not been available early, even if common sense tells us that it was probably going to be a nice performer no matter what. Maybe Smash lost a million young viewers who watched the pilot early, or maybe it gained a million viewers who were convinced by other people to watch. The networks have some idea of who’s watching these episodes online early, and they’re certainly sharing those numbers with advertisers, but we will probably never know.

Yet, the fact that we’re continuing to see pilots go up online early is probably the best proof we’re going to get that this methodology works. Internally, if NBC, Fox, ABC or The CW* saw that the numbers or the money wasn’t lining up, they’d stop. The additional wave of buzz—and ad money they make on places like Hulu, of course—that these early-debuting shows can ride must be enough for the networks to stick with it. Money still rules, but perhaps buzz is closing in.

* It's really curious to see that CBS hasn't done this yet, to my knowledge. That definitely says something about the network's audience—or at least who CBS thinks the audience is—and their habits. Also important to point out: CBS kills in the ratings. Maybe they are on to something?

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