On Saturday morning at SXSW, I’ll be one of the first people to watch “American Gods,” Bryan Fuller’s adaptation of the Neil Gaiman novel set to debut on Starz April 30. And when I do, I won’t tell you what I thought.
That’s because Starz has instituted an April 17 embargo on official reviews. However, the reason for that embargo may have less to do with any specifics of the show and more to do with TV marketing departments that are still testing the waters when it comes to festival premieres.
Part prestige event, part marketing gambit, making a splashy debut at a film festival requires careful planning. But unlike movie premieres, where marketing executives and PR experts have honed their craft over decades of roaming the festival circuit, TV strategies are still being formed.
The Only Embargoed Series at SXSW
In addition to “American Gods,” this year SXSW will host premieres of “The Son” (AMC), “Dear White People” (Netflix), “I’m Dying Up Here” (Showtime), “Nobodies” (TV Land), and “I Love Bekka and Lucy” (Stage 13).
None of these premieres conflict, meaning a hardcore TV fan can attend every screening in the Episodic section and judge the content for themselves. Of course, this means television critics can do the same. A very big part of a critic’s job is serving as a curator, helping potential viewers decide what they want to watch. That makes attending TV festivals essential, especially when high-profile series are premiering.
In 2017, Starz is the only network enforcing an embargo on TV reviews at SXSW and had this to say about the decision: “The network has requested press respect the embargo since they will be receiving the first four episodes for review shortly after the screening. Unlike film, reviewers of episodic television prefer to review off more than just the pilot episode.”
This, by and large, is true. Watch a film and you get the full story in one sitting. TV demands more time, and networks want critics to spend as much time as possible with new shows. (Many critics want that as well.)
By instituting a review embargo, the theory goes, Starz will receive coverage that centers on what the creators and stars say in the panel rather than what critics say about one episode.And since the embargo doesn’t include coverage of the SXSW premiere, press can access the creators and cast on the red carpet and at a panel and post-screening Q&A. Without the embargo, critics might skip the panel and leave the screening to get their reviews up as quickly as they can. That would also mean that SXSW reviews based on one episode would dominate coverage, setting expectations not only for fans but also for critics who weren’t at the festival.
“American Gods” is a very important series for the network, and the embargo is a safe play. It helps ensure more thorough reviews without giving up coverage at SXSW.
So why is Starz the only network enforcing an embargo?