Creators Join Publicity’s Front Lines
By JOEL KELLER, Published: February 12, 2012
IN the olden days of television — somewhere around 2005 — the executives of a veteran show that was struggling to find an audience or trying to ensure that viewers returned after a long hiatus had limited promotion options. They could rely on their networks to flood airwaves, billboards and the sides of buses with ads. Maybe they wrote a blog on the network’s Web site.
Since then social networking has opened new paths for show runners, writers and actors to tout their series. But even on those platforms, much of the communication is at least sanctioned by the network, if not outright fostered by it.
But Bill Lawrence, a creator of “Cougar Town” on ABC, is reaching out to the fans themselves. And he decided to do so without telling the powers that be at ABC first.
“I think network TV is still being dragged kicking and screaming into the realization that they’re actually cable TV,” he said, citing the small audiences now watching most network shows.
He spoke during an interview at a “Cougar Town” party for journalists attending the Television Critics Association press tour here in January. He paid for the party himself, one of several off-the-grid moves Mr. Lawrence and his fellow creator, Kevin Biegel, have made in the struggle to keep the show’s profile high as it enters its third season.
It hasn’t been easy. The show was left off ABC’s fall schedule, had its episode order cut to 15 from 22, and only recently received a solid premiere date, Tuesday, after the midseason comedy “Work It” was canceled. As soon as they found out about the reduced episode order and vague promise of a winter premiere, the two creators activated a plan they had been batting around for some time: viewing parties with the show’s fans.
“It’s a defeatist attitude from TV writers that you have to run everything up the flagpole,” Mr. Biegel said at the same party. “ABC, or whatever network you write for, pays for the show you shoot and pays for your salary,” he said. “Aside from that they don’t pay for anything. If it’s my prerogative to take the show and show it to people, I can do that.”
The plan was simple: run the first few episodes of the new season on big screens in bars around the country and give fans a chance to interact with some of the stars and writers. Starting in late December there have been viewing parties in nine locations, including Sarasota, Fla.; Chicago; Las Vegas; and on the show’s set in Culver City, Calif. More parties — in New York, Philadelphia and elsewhere — were planned for this weekend. At many of the them Mr. Lawrence and Mr. Biegel have found a sponsor to help defray costs. But all were set up without the knowledge or assistance of ABC.
This isn’t the first time the “Cougar Town” team has kept ABC out of the loop for a promotion. Last season the team worked with Dan Harmon, creator of the NBC comedy “Community,” to have characters from each show appear on the other.
Because the crossover involved rival networks, Mr. Lawrence kept it quiet, asking journalists not to publicize it. Had the creators sought permission from the networks, he said, “it wouldn’t have happened.” He tried to keep a lid on leaks because “I harbored fears that I’d get calls to edit it out,” he said, adding, “It only takes one person to say, ‘Hey, they’re promoting an NBC show.’ ” But once the episodes were broadcast, none of the show runners received flak from network executives.
In the case of the viewing parties, ABC has publicly supported them, especially the network’s entertainment president, Paul Lee. “The great thing about Bill is that he’s so open,” he said, adding later, “I used to be a show runner, and I used to do exactly what Bill is doing.”
Nevertheless Mr. Biegel said he found that “there are people at ABC who think we’re out of our minds and wasting our time.” To those people he would say, “Bill and I are going to do it, and if we’re wrong, we’re wrong.”
The parties have been drawing robust, enthusiastic crowds, which is satisfying for the show’s star, Courteney Cox, who is also one of the producers. “When you go and you see the fans who watch the show and care so much about it, and you’re giving back to them and in turn we’re asking them to spread the word, it just seems like a smart idea,” she said. Besides, she added, there’s no reason for the network to be upset: “Why wouldn’t they be like, ‘Oh, great, thanks for doing the stuff that we’re not doing, that we should be doing’?”
Efforts like viewing parties, Facebook pages and Twitter feeds from the stars and writers try to foster a personal connection with fans. The more people feel fiercely loyal to the show, the more they will urge their friends to watch.
“When a comedy is fighting for every single ratings point, we feel one tick up on the chart keeps you alive,” said Sam Laybourne, one of the show’s writers. “Grass roots, as crazy as it seems, can work on TV.”
That notion is relatively new in the industry. As an example, almost no one from ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy,” which its creator, Shonda Rhimes, calls “the last of the old-school shows,” uses social media, yet numerous people from that series’s spinoff, “Private Practice,” do.
Likewise “Community” — which is not currently on the NBC schedule, though the network’s entertainment president, Bob Greenblatt, assured those at the critics’ tour that the show would return — has rabid fans, and the stars and writers communicate with them via Twitter and Facebook. The same applies to other comedies with small but devoted audiences, like NBC’s “Parks and Recreation” and ABC’s “Happy Endings.”
But none have gone as far as “Cougar Town,” mainly because the other shows lack the resources and leverage of Mr. Lawrence. He left ABC Studios and signed a development deal with Warner Brothers Television in 2011 and has sold shows to three networks.
“I felt like I didn’t have the same pressure to play by any specific rules,” he said. “If I were a neophyte, I’d never do this because it would label me.”
Other show runners are watching to see how “Cougar Town” fares with its strategy. One of that sitcom’s fans is Ms. Rhimes, who will have a new series on ABC in the spring. If it needs promotional help, “I’d probably call Bill Lawrence and ask him what he thought I could do,” she said. “I’m not kidding.”