While cable networks like HBO, Showtime, Starz and AMC have been offering up the first episode of their series online as a way to potentially lure new subscribers, for the networks, it's become more a question of marketing. Last year Fox's "New Girl" was rolled out online ahead of its premiere on the network, and earlier this year ABC did the same thing with "Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23." NBC is slated to pre-air three new series -- "Animal Practice," "Chicago Fire" and "The New Normal."
As Andrew Wallenstein writes at Variety, the idea of offering up a full episode of a show ahead of its on-air premiere goes against the obvious logic:
Of all the marketing techniques at the TV networks' disposal for the fall season, pre-air distribution may be the most counterintuitive method: Making an episode available in its entirety before its premiere off-air may help later drive tune-in on-air. At first blush, the gambit holds out the possibility of cannibalizing audience by giving the viewers most likely to watch a show's premiere a reason to opt out of the TV exhibition window, where most money is made through ratings guarantees to advertisers.
But giving online viewers a chance to watch a show early also increases ever-valuable word-of-mouth (though that can cut both ways), and is a kind of natural extension of the traditional ways of pushing a new property in an increasingly crowded marketplace. With so many new series launching around the same time in the fall, a network otherwise has to bet heavily on stars, marketing and press to entice audiences to give a show a try.
An on-air preview window gives people more time to sample a new series and to opt in to setting a DVR to reccord it or to talk it up to people they know. And with so much full-length television online, hoping that people will come to check out a clip of or promo or trailer for a show they've never watched isn't always a safe bet.
So far the trend in previewing pilots seems to be to remove the episode from the web as we get closer to the premiere date in order to direct people back to watching it on air. It's also been more common to see half-hour comedies offered up this way than dramas (though "Chicago Fire" is the latter) -- something that makes sense in that comedies are more about liking the humor and characters than necessarily the story. Sitcoms may be more welcoming to test-drive because they're less about investing in a narrative.
There's still a lot of pressure put on premiere ratings numbers. But giving online audiences a chance to watch a new series' pilot early demonstrate how different television and film marketing has become -- if you're looking to get someone to invest their time in a show in a longer-term commitment, giving away the first installment has become the new way to hopefully get someone hooked.