In Depth

‘Glee’ Pilot Doubles as Marketing Trial

Months-Long Pause Tests Fox’s Launch Plan

Fox is breaking more than a few rules with its rollout of “Glee,” the ambitious musical comedy series from “Nip/Tuck” creator Ryan Murphy.

For the first time anyone in TV circles can recall, a network is using a pilot for a show not as the beginning of a series, but as the start of a marketing campaign. That’s because after “Glee” has its post-“American Idol” bow on May 19, Fox won’t air the second episode of the series until late August or early September.

“The way we’re looking at May 19 is, it’s the world’s largest grassroots screening,” said Joe Earley, the executive VP in charge of marketing for Fox. “The show sells itself better than any (campaign) can.”

Specifically, Mr. Earley is hoping to convert the millions who watch the pilot into evangelists eager to spend the summer months spreading the gospel of “Glee.”

“Our goal is to turn the people who watched it into brand ambassadors, to use hackneyed marketing-speak,” Mr. Earley said. “We believe that when you watch this show, you can’t help but get out the word.”

“Glee” is an ambitious, water-cooler-friendly hour that balances out a Fox schedule increasingly loaded with procedurals.

But Fox doesn’t just want word of mouth pumping up the fall premiere. Instead, it plans to make the “Glee” pilot ubiquitous over the summer, so that people who hear the buzz for the show can sample it immediately.

To that end, Mr. Earley told TelevisionWeek that Fox plans to make the “Glee” pilot available for on-demand streaming via Hulu, Fox. com and other sites. In addition, producer 20th Century Fox Television is considering a plan to make the pilot available on DVD not long after it airs on the network—possibly by giving it away for free, a person familiar with the discussions said.

“If you talk to your buddy and say, ‘You’ve gotta watch this show,’ we want to make sure they have a place to go,” Mr. Earley said.

The network also expects there will be many groups of potential viewers who would never respond to traditional advertising and marketing for a show such as “Glee,” which has big musical production numbers and awkward high school students front and center. That’s why it’s key to give viewers as many chances as possible to see the pilot.

“We need them to see it and experience it, so they can see that it’s also wickedly funny and that it’s about heroes and underdogs,” Mr. Earley said. “We need them to know this isn’t ‘High School Musical.’ It’s also for people who watched ‘The OC’ or who liked the movie ‘Election.’”

Among the other ways Fox will keep people buzzing about “Glee” over the summer:

—“We’ll be deepening engagements with characters from the show over the summer, working with social networks,” Mr. Earley said. Translation: Don’t be surprised if characters from “Glee” start showing up on Twitter and Facebook.

—Fox has partnered with Photobucket.com for a national promotion encouraging viewers to show off their “gold-star potential” by submitting photos and videos of themselves.

—Extended featurettes will air in theaters throughout the summer blockbuster season.

—Look for “Glee” advertising on major summer concert tours. Fox also will have street teams promoting the show at recreational venues during major holiday weekends. “We’re going to be in places where people gather over the summer,” Mr. Earley said.

—Fox will use its summer hit “So You Think You Can Dance” as a marketing base, though details of potential cross-promotions have yet to be finalized.

—Those who have already seen the pilot will be encouraged to remain engaged via a steady barrage of behind-the-scenes footage, interviews and other content, some of it culled from an advance photo session.

Of course, while Mr. Earley’s focus is on the fall, Fox isn’t forgetting to sell the May 19 preview episode.

The network has begun introducing outdoor ads and weekly magazine print ads touting the pilot, along with spots on its own air. It will have pre-May 19 screenings of the show in the top 10 media markets, including one at a Santa Monica, Calif., high school, which will be attended by the “Glee” cast.

Mr. Earley told TVWeek that Fox will use its May 18 upfront presentation in New York to help drive tune-in for the pilot as well. He declined to give details, but hinted it might involve some stunting along the lines of what Fox did last year, when cows roamed outside the network’s upfront in order to promote “Fringe.”

“But we’re very cautious about overdoing (the marketing for May 19),” Mr. Earley said. “We’re not trying to hype May. We’re trying to make you want to watch. Then the show works for itself.”

Fox also wants to avoid raising expectations for “Glee’s” May ratings performance.

While the premiere will air behind the biggest show on TV, “It’s an incredibly competitive night for a new show to launch,” Mr. Earley said. The 9 p.m. timeslot that night also will feature the season finales of ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars” and CBS’ first-year hit “The Mentalist.”

“We won’t be looking at what percentage of ‘Idol’ it retained or its overall numbers,” Mr. Earley added. “The goal is just to get as many people as possible to see it (before the fall). There is no better platform for us than to put it on behind ‘Idol.’”