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 TV.com—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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I enjoy watching the pilots early to get a sense of the show and if I want to commit more time to future episodes.
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I think there is another aspect to it. Watching a pilot is always an ambivilous act. You maybe want to see a new show, but you're unfamiliar with the charcters the story the whole deal is pretty much a first date. Now i can imagine, sitting at home watching tv, having a choice between two "new" shows. One where i didn't see the pilot a month ago and the second episode of a show of which i saw the pilot online. Even if the pilot didn't blew me away, chances are i will most likely watch the second episode of the show i don't have to get to know all over again. It's like meeting an old buddy, which in my experiance is far more comfortable then a first date.
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Summer series have gotten better recently so I'm more apt to continue watching something I like then watching one of the network's "sneak peeks". When the seasons start I watch what interests me, but if I hear something might be better then I though I'll look for episodes online to watch when nothing else is on. You'd think by now the networks would realize that people watch shows when it's convenient to them (remember VCRs? Almost 40 years and networks still can't figure that out.). I watch Castle as soon as it's on but hunt down Hawaii Five-0 so I can watch it when it's online. My view of both shows should be counted in "the ratings" but as far as they're concerned only Castle counts. Networks tend to put great shows opposite each other and there can only be 1 ratings winner, even if all 3 or 4 network shows were viewed equally, but at the public's convenience. If the networks don't figure out a new way to rate shows then more like Firefly, Pushing Daisies, etc. will get killed off before they've had a chance to thrive.
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Last season, I watched Revenge pilot early online & Smash early OnDemand.im glad they had they released them early cause I had other shows on the same night or time as Revenge & Smash so I gott to watch them on my schedule before being bombarded by my other shows.But I think releasing releasing pilots online early hurts ratings and I wonder if a lot of people see a pilot early,don't like it then go diss it online ,if that dosent chase others who were going to check out a certain pilot away from watching it or the show cause of bad reviews.
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Maybe networks are trying to spend less time on shows that will have awful ratings? Maybe it's not only about the early buzz. Perhaps they're also trying to find out which show is probably going to tank, so they will be able to cancel them at an earlier time.
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This makes sense, actually. Considering the growing trends of people watching TV online instead of live, relying on the web to make your cancellation decisions seems like the best step. If only the Nielsen group can get on board as well and start including data from Hulu and the network websites we'd be all set.
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As much as I admire the living marshmallow that is Mindy Kaling, I'm reluctant to put on The Mindy Project ever since I heard her character is an OB/GYN. Usually such a maneuver means a chick show full of jokes about vaginas followed by an elbow in the rib and "We've all been THERE, am I right??" I'm a guy and it doesn't work on me.
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Maybe it is just means they wanted to have one more reason she never meets guys. You'll have to watch to find out. I won't be, as I've been afraid of living marshmallows since I saw Ghostbusters.
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On one hand releasing an episode early online works, because I never would have watched Go On otherwise. On the other hand they need to remember the lesson they learned from The Black Donnelly's; they aired episodes online but not on TV so the only people who could follow the show were those that took the time to look it up online. It completely disregarded traditional viewers. If they air something early online they should still air the pilot at it's normal time on TV.
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I've watched every pilot up there except Mindy. The best one is the one I watched last night and was LEAST enthused by Last Resort. I wasn't a Lost fan, but I like the cast and there is some great foundation there. All the NBC comedies are eh. I want, I beg that Animal Practice finds its groove. I marathoned Supernatural a few years ago and I HATED the first 2-3 eps before it really hooked me in. I hope Revolution can break through that.



And I was hooked into Glee, but I must admit, I didn't watch the last season finale or premiere.





And 1 show not included (F CBS cept Craig) including one you didn't list: Elementary. I'll stick with Sherlock and Johnny Lee Miller is British!? And I vaguely approve of the relationship but don't care. It felt like any other procedural that I do not watch. I'll impatiently wait for the next season of Sherlock.
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Didn't New Girl's ratings flag towards the end of the season though? Seems to me that shows with a lot of buzz only get a short-term bump, then they have to do the same legwork as everybody else.
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It makes perfect sense.

I have used internet released pilots/screeners to see which shows interest me.

I did that for Lost years ago. I might not have checked out the show when it premiered otherwise.

I don't know about "buzz" but I do know it helps me determine which shows I will track down to watch.

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I like that it gives you a chance to evaluate new shows on your time line instead of during the structured programming hour. Watched the Homeland 20 min preview and it got me back on track to watch this season. Last Resort preview actually got me more interested in advance because the acting turned out to be pretty decent, which I thought was not going to work. Go On early release was pretty funny and would not have been a show I would have watched normally. So it seems to have a big upside with these early previews.
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Personally I am a lot more likely to watch a pilot that is released early online. When all of the shows are premiering its easy to miss some, or to not check them all out. Whereas with the select pilots that are released, I usually watch 95% of them because I have nothing else to watch.
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Buzz is good and so is getting people to watch. Although pilots tend to have better ratings, the money is in a show that has a long running and dedicated audience. The fact that you can sit down and watch all the pilots early and in one general place, is actually quite important. You can get people early on who will keep with the show, or you can get no audience and can the show early. Either way you're trading a little bit of ratings for a better grasp on the success of your show. It doesn't matter where I watch the pilot if it sucks, it sucks. Getting that information early is likely quite valuable. Guard your supply later on, but for goodness sakes the first taste should be as free as you can make it. Getting a consistent audience is likely worth a lot.



The bulk of the benefit is in getting more people to watch your pilot. And considering that there's a growing population of TV-less TV-watchers you'd be foolish not to consider such a plan.
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CBS still make the most best shows. Why would they bother?
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They make TV for people who don't actually *like* TV. Shows designed so that it's not a problem if you miss a few episodes, or if you miss the beginning, middle or final third of any given episode.
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So people that like tv are people who don't watch every episode or even the whole episode? THAT makes sense. Btw, I love, love, love to watch GOOD tv. Creative, interesting, and tought-provoking tv.
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"So people that like tv are people who don't watch every episode or even the whole episode?"



What I said is the exact opposite of this. Most people aren't particularly interested in TV shows. They will just switch on the TV and watch whatever's on, and leave it (for example) if the wife says that dinner's ready. CBS makes TV for *them*. These people will miss episodes, or parts of episodes, so they can't follow a show that actually tells a story.



The reason why this works is that there's a lot of these people.
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"make the most best shows" Yeah, ok, sure. Person of Interest is the only good thing on CBS--everything else on that network is boring, uninspired, and repetitive.
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I am not wasting my time on these i am waiting till they pass 5 episodes and hoping some of them get cancel and remove from the line up. The voice and factor x will damage these shows.

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Same here. The buzz generally means nothing. I mean look at Terra Nova and Alcatraz.
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They have the longest running shows. If you like something on CBS, something they put on the air, you don't have to live in the fear it will get canceled. If you don't like much or anything, that's fine too. But just look at the runs they've had with NCIS, CSI, Criminal Minds, HIMYM, The Big Bang Theory. And The Mentalist and The Good Wife will have similar long runs. There's something there for everyone. Comedy, drama, procedurals.

Stability. In this day, when at least 20 new shows come every fall, you'll always find something to watch. But will they last? I'm still pissed at ABC for canceling Detroit 1-8-7.
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What about shows that actually tell a story? (Shows like Spartacus, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, Homeland and The Wire). What about shows where each season is a new story, instead of each episode telling essentially the *same* story? (Shows like Dexter, Sleeper Cell, Sons of Anarchy, Teen Wolf, and Buffy: The Vampire Slayer).
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I think the networks are moving TOO slow in catching up with today's world. For one, if networks would release their episodes online just hours after it actually airs and then count the viewings that are made online along with what's seen through television, I'm pretty sure Neilson ratings would make a hell of a lot more sense.



I don't know anybody in my social circle who actually watches television at the appropriate time anymore. People want to find timeslots that fit them, not the other way around, so they wait for it to be available online or... they FIND it online somewhere... and that's how they watch their tv. Those are lost ratings right there, but if the networks would find their way into the 21st Century, this wouldn't be an issue, and ratings would bemore appropriate.
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Neilsen ratings make PERFECT sense, they just don't measure what you think they do. Advertisers don't actually care how many people are watching the show, they care how many people are seeing the advertising. That's what they measure. That's why DVR numbers are heavily discounted, and online views are not measured at all (Online airings get different commercials, which are measured in a completely different way.).
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You're right of course, but the networks could also *sell* the episodes online, for the same price that the advertisers pay for each traditional viewer. Then it would make sense to include them in the count.



We keep hearing about how networks want to stop illegal downloads. They need to realize that they lost the battle a long time ago, and that the only way to improve the situation is to provide legal download options that are at least as fast and easy to use as bittorrent.
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I have doubts about the hype-effect of releasing the pilots online early. Seems like networks often focus on Nielson ratings from the get-go, cancelling some shows only after a couple episodes. I don't see how getting bad ratings for the pilot helps it any. I'm not a Nielson guy, but for example, having watched pilots for Go On, Revolution, and Last Resort online, I haven't and wont be watching the premieres for any of em. Then again, maybe the networks only release pilots for shows they plan on giving a longer leash to.
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Most people who have seen those three seem to be saying "Revolution bad (or terrible), Last Resort good (or very good), and Go On meh". So maybe it could work for Last Resort, but I don't see how it could help Revolution. (Yes, the people who watched the pilot of Last Resort online won't be watching it on TV, but they have probably told other people that they should watch it).

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Revolution so sucked! I hope they fix it before it airs finally cause it's gonna be downhill all the way.
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Revolution is gonna be this years Terra Nova. Lots of investment and big names behind it, so they let it bubbling along for 12 episodes while hemorrhaging money and nobody watching caring.
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homeland too
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