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Comic-Con Still Matters, But Networks Seek New Ways To Directly Engage with Fans

Freeform and AMC both launched summits this year, while CBS plans to turn some of its key franchises into money-making events.

Karlie Kloss and Yara ShahidiFreeform Summit, Panel, Los Angeles, USA - 18 Jan 2018

Karlie Kloss and Yara Shahidi at the Freeform Summit

Variety/REX/Shutterstock

It might seem a bit glaring at first that HBO and Starz have chosen to sit out this year’s San Diego Comic-Con. But in reality, most TV outlets have already started to be much more targeted in how and when they employ their promotional and branding efforts.

In some cases, networks are opting to go it alone, creating direct-to-consumer and direct-to-trade events where they can spend more time honing their message. They’re also being much more strategic in not banging the marketing drum too early for shows. It’s a noisy entertainment environment, after all, so it’s important to pick when and how to stand out.

“There’s a crisis of attention,” said Freeform president Tom Ascheim.

In January, Freeform opted to skip the Television Critics Association press tour and instead held a daylong “Freeform Summit,” in which it brought stars and producers to participate in a variety of panels that touched upon their shows but also discussed the themes that run through all of the network’s series.

“There’s so much fandom around our shows and we wanted to make sure we had a way to attack that with a different lens,” Ascheim said. “There are also a lot of themes that feel like they cut across our shows. So as we began talking about panels and the way to present a show, we wanted to try something that was a little different.”

According to Ascheim, the event generated a billion media impressions in 24 hours. “It was an experiment, and worked better than we thought it would,” he said. “We generated a lot of consumer awareness through the people we talked to in the trade.”

AMC Summit

AMC

Earlier this month, AMC launched its own “AMC Summit,” a similar approach with a handful of panels featuring AMC talent. One discussion centered on “The Kick-Ass Women of AMC” (including producers Melissa Bernstein and Marti Noxon, and stars Julianna Margulies and Jenna Elfman), while another was a discussion about book adaptations. The event ended with a “masterclass” discussion about the origins of “Better Call Saul,” starting with “Breaking Bad.”

“The consumer is so savvy now and fandom is so rich that they’re looking beyond consumer vehicles for their information,” said AMC president Charlie Collier. “Because they want to know more. And really in many ways, trade is consumer for the avid fan… If you look at the diversity of topics we were able to cover, [it was] translated through the talent sharing with each other, and also it was a way for us to be personal and not packaged.”

Disney, perhaps, pioneered the direct-to-consumer approach with D23. The annual fan event is often compared to Comic-Con as a place where Disney likes to engage with fans and break news. But the streaming services have also helped trigger a new approach to consumer and media outreach.

Netflix, for example, has eschewed the TCA press tour in recent years in favor of its own media junket. (In a bit of a reversal, however, it has opted to return to TCA this summer.) The streamer also recently opened up its Emmy For Your Consideration space at Raleigh Studios to consumers for one weekend, as an opportunity for fans to interact (and take selfies, naturally) with displays dedicated to various Netflix shows.

These direct-to-consumer and trade events promote shows, but in many cases, they’re also meant to market the network’s brand. As Netflix continues to grow and challenge the traditional TV ecosystem, networks run the risk of losing their currency as a destination that audiences seek out. By launching their own events, execs hope to stay top of mind among fans.

“I grew up in cable at MTV Networks and one of the things we talked about at the time was brands and the importance of brands that meant something beyond television shows,” Ascheim said. “I think all of these experiences, whether for trade or consumer, are extensions of a brand. As the world gets more complicated, it’s important to be more three-dimensional. Otherwise, you risk being lumped in with just another provider of TV shows. And I don’t think that bodes well for anyone’s future, so we’re working hard to stay differentiated.”

Kristian Nairn, Isaac Hempstead Wright, John Bradley, Nathalie Emmanuel, Liam Cunningham, Sophie Turner, Jacob Anderson, Conleth Hill, Alfie Allen and Gwendoline Christie'Game of Thrones' TV show panel, Comic-Con International, San Diego, USA - 21 Jul 2017

‘Game of Thrones’ panel at Comic-Con 2017

Rob Latour/REX/Shutterstock

All of this doesn’t mean that they’re completely turning their back on mondo events where series and stars are the focus, including Comic-Con. Companies like Warner Bros. TV, FX, NBC and others will still be in San Diego next month in full force.

“We have found that doing stuff on our own can be super effective, but we also like to participate where there’s already a built-in cluster of fans who want to spend time,” Ascheim said. “We will be at San Diego Comic-Con this year and will have an activation for ‘Cloak and Dagger.'”

Collier noted that AMC will throw a Season 4 premiere party in San Diego for “Better Call Saul.” The network’s “The Walking Dead” and “Fear the Walking Dead” will also be there, as will sister network BBC America’s “Doctor Who.”

“We really are in the context of doing the right thing for each show individually based on what we, the creators and the marketing and promotional folk think is the best,” Collier said. “The promotional window needs to be useful to you and not competitive with your schedule.”

That’s why AMC brought its spring series “Into the Badlands” to Anaheim’s WonderCon event in April, instead of to San Diego Comic-Con. HBO said it wasn’t bringing “Game of Thrones,” which isn’t back until next year, and “Westworld,” which just completed its season, for similar scheduling reasons. And Starz took “Outlander” to New York Comic-Con, but couldn’t coordinate a San Diego trip.

“If a show doesn’t go one year, it could be due to production schedules and not an editorial on the value of the opportunity,” Collier noted.

Beyond marketing/promotional and press events, networks are also increasingly looking at extending their brands through their own festivals and other consumer experience events, with an eye toward actual revenue.

Comedy Central’s Clusterfest has become a signature, successful event for that network. Now, CBS Corporation has just launched CBS Experiences, a new division that aims to turn the company’s various brands into events and destinations. First up: A live theater event based on the Eye network’s “CBS Sunday Morning” franchise, set to take place Oct. 1 in New York.

“Consumers want to lean in on what they love in different ways,” said CBSX executive vice president/managing director Rich Lobel. “We are starting with more of the events in theater-type venues but when you look across the entire portfolio, it will take the form of festivals, and exhibitions, so we’re not limiting it to just stage/spoken word, it will run the gamut. When you look at publishing and news, interactive, syndication, entertainment, sports, and legacy shows like ‘I Love Lucy,’ ‘Cheers’ and ‘The Love Boat,’ it all lends itself to great expressions of stories and content. It will be a range of experiences we’re bringing to life, and then these will bring in revenue through sponsorships, ticket sales and merchandising opportunities.”

CBS Corp. senior executive vice president/chief administrative officer Tony Ambrosio said there’s a promotional benefit from these events, but is careful not to step on the marketing department’s toes. “Clearly these events will throw off some marketing advantages and create some additional awareness,” he said. “We saw this wealth of incredible intellectual property we have across all of our business units and thought we could help create something our audiences and fans could engage with in a new way.”

Ultimately, networks aren’t choosing to either attend or avoid Comic-Con; it’s just a part of a larger pile of options as networks and studios pick and choose what’s right for their shows and brands.

“I wish I could tell you what the ‘always’ and the ‘nevers’ are,” Ascheim said. “But these days it feels like the world is moving so quickly we try to stay away from ‘always’ and ‘never’ because we don’t know enough. So we try to make each one make sense. In general, we’ll always try to do some stuff with pre-existing, large-scale events. But sometimes we do it on our own because that feels like it can make a lot of sense too.”

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