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What Fox—And Other Networks—Can Learn From 'Glee'


Yesterday, Fox announced that its new musical/comedy show, Glee, has been given the go-ahead for a full 22-episode season. While this has definite implications for my future as a recapper, it says far more about the success of Fox's marketing campaign for the show, which began with a post-American Idol airing of the pilot and led to a five-month, buzz-generating viral marketing campaign that took full advantage of the popularity of social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook.

So why did Fox give Glee such a fantastic running start rather than a show like, say, Dollhouse, which had a built-in following of Whedonites to help a similar campaign go viralFurthermore, why doesn't Fox give similar promotional backing to other new and returning shows in its lineup? This is pure speculation, but I'm willing to bet it has a lot to do with the Big Fours' simultaneous fear and dismissal of web entertainment and the internet in general, and its out-of-touch perception that only tweens and teens are actually paying any attention to the internet. 

Web entertainment has too long been seen as a threat to network revenue, rather than a potential tool for gaining interest and a loyal viewership. At the same time, new media in general (comprising everything from internet-produced episodic comedy to blogs) has been and continues to be almost categorically dismissed as less legitimate or worthwhile than film, television or print media. While that view seems to be diminishing somewhat—after all, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences did see fit to honor Dr. Horrible's Sing-A-Long Blog this year with a Special Category Emmy, despite having never aired on broadcast or cable television—the internet is still largely seen as an underdeveloped and lawless frontier that is no match for Big TV. 

Fox, like the other three major networks, probably thinks it took a huge risk in putting this Little Show That Could out there up front the way they have, and even more so for tactically employing social networking media and user-generated internet buzz as part of their marketing plan. That's because they're only just now cluing in to what we've known for years now: if a show is good and enough people know where to find it, they will watch it and they'll tell their friends. And, furthermore, with social media they can tell 400 of their closest friends and acquaintances at once. 

We, the blog readers and writers, the tweeters, the compulsive Facebook checkers, already know how social media shapes what we watch and buy. We're overwhelmingly inundated with commercials, teasers and trailers every time we go to the movies, turn on the TV, or go online. While they sometimes catch our interest, we've all been burned enough times by slickly-edited previews and TV spots to know how often what seems like a Fendi is a cleverly disguised sow's ear. What we really trust, what really makes us tune in, is when people we know tell us something is worth watching or purchasing.

I don't mean to suggest that the success of Glee's marketing campaign doesn't rely solely on the popularity of social media and blogs. On the contrary, Glee has only been successfully marketed via social networking and gained a large viewership so quickly because it's a good show that people want to watch and talk about. Would this kind of campaign work with every show? Probably not. Shows with older target demographics are unlikely to have as much success with viral marketing and social networking buzz, though if my mom is on Facebook, it's only a matter of time before everyone's tweeting. Demographics aside though, what it truly comes down to is quality. If word of mouth and internet advertising—rather than a primo time-slot and stars whose names you recognize—were primary marketing tactics for shows like Two and a Half Men, I'm willing to bet a lot of those shows would no longer be airing. Perhaps the biggest reason networks so seldom dedicate the effort required to conduct a campaign like the one Fox has so successfully executed for Glee, is that so few shows on network television are worth it. 

So where does that leave shows that were worth the effort, yet found themselves left in the dust? What about Firefly, Pushing Daisies, or Veronica Mars, all good shows with cult followings that nevertheless died early deaths? I believe the answer again lies with the networks' lack of faith in the quality of their programming. In all of these cases, the show on the rocks was beloved and efforts to keep them on the air gained steam on the internet. Nevertheless, viewer intervention was too little, too late. It wasn't enough if the network doesn't have the faith and the cajones to stand by its product in the first place. Had each of these shows been marketed from the start the way Glee has, perhaps they'd all have had the runs they so richly deserved.

I know I'm being hard on television, but you must know I love it like family. I'm neither afraid to tell television when it's fucked up, nor when it's done good, and Fox has done right by Glee in recognizing it as a quality show that people should see. However, when putting a product out for consumption, shouldn't a company always feel its product is worth the consumer's time and money? If the Big Four—including Fox—followed the example of its basic and premium cable counterparts more often, committing to air only quality programming worth talking about, perhaps their fall lineups wouldn't be quite so decimated by January. 

So take a hard look at the success of Glee, network execs. Come to see the internet as your ally, not your enemy and realize once and for all that people don't care which idiot box they're being entertained by, so long as they're being entertained. Then select only quality shows for your line-up, brag about them like they're your little honors students, and let us do the rest of the work. 

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And then don't put it on opposite two or more other great shows (e.g., House/Heroes/How I Met Your Mother). That sort of mutually-assured destruction went out with Norman Lear.

Re Dollhouse: Fox may be doing right by Glee, but it's still the network where SF shows go to die.




I think another problem is the network's lack of faith in the intelligence of its audience.

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