WB Sneaks Series on Web

Jul 25, 2004  •  Post A Comment

In an unprecedented arrangement among a network, a studio and an Internet provider, AOL Television will premiere online the entire first episode of The WB’s new drama series “Jack & Bobby” weeks before it airs on broadcast television.

Never before has a full episode of a premiering series that has yet to broadcast on television been shown via broadband. The “special advance sneak preview,” as the network is calling it, will be available to AOL’s 3.5 million AOL for Broadband subscribers for about a week starting in late August or early September. “Jack & Bobby” premieres on The WB in the competitive 9 p.m. Sunday time slot Sept. 12.

Airing a repeat episode online is one thing, but premiering not only an episode, but a series that hasn’t aired on television, is truly breaking new ground.

The WB Chairman Garth Ancier described the broadband webcast as “an extremely unique way to expose the show to potential viewers and bring more people to the tent.”

The “Jack & Bobby” episode will run online without advertisements, since the move was “a pure marketing play between the show, the network, the studio and AOL,” Suzanne Kolb, executive VP of marketing for The WB, told TelevisionWeek.

“It really fits into a pure promotional model,” Ms. Kolb said. “We are using the episode to promote the show itself.”

One of The WB’s most anticipated new 2004-05 series, “Jack & Bobby” follows the lives of two present-day brothers, including one who will someday grow up to be president. Mr. Ancier called the show, which has already received favorable reviews from some important TV critics, The WB’s “No. 1 priority in the fall.”

After a season in which The WB saw its ratings sag, a show like “Jack & Bobby” that has the potential to bring in new viewers couldn’t be more important to the network. Even though Mr. Ancier insisted at The WB’s Television Critics Association press tour presentation two weeks ago that the network has always been interested in the adults 18 to 34 demographic, the past emphasis on the younger side of that demo, with an additional focus on teens, has given way to an interest in a broader (and older) audience that includes broadband subscribers.

“Jack & Bobby” executive producer Thomas Schlamme said he is enthusiastic about the online premiere because it makes clear the network’s and studio’s commitment to the show, which is produced by Berlanti/Liddell Productions and Shoe Money Productions in association with Warner Bros. Television Production. “From the creative standpoint, it is an incredible pat on the back,” he said. “It’s not necessarily about ticking up numbers on that first night, but what it is really saying is, `We want people to see this. We want to make this available to people who might not possibly turn this on the first time.”‘

The show takes the tried-and-true casting model for The WB, which focuses on finding young, unknown talent who have the potential to be breakout stars. In this case, that young unknown is Matt Long, who plays older brother Jack. But “Jack & Bobby” takes advantage of a much more established actor who in the past would probably not have been considered for a role on The WB-Emmy and Golden Globe winner Christine Lahti, who plays Grace, the headstrong mother of the two boys. Ms. Lahti is also Mr. Schlamme’s wife.

While the “Jack and Bobby” arrangement is a first, the partners in the push do have some precedent to go on.

In March AOL Television and The WB joined with their Time Warner corporate cousin Warner Bros. Television to show an entire repeat episode of the family drama “Everwood” to AOL subscribers. The show’s creator, Greg Berlanti, also created “Jack & Bobby.” Patricia Karpas, VP and general manager of AOL Television, said the “Everwood” repeat episode ran right before a new batch of episodes of the show began airing April 5 on The WB. AOL users accessed the episode’s stream 150,000 times during the one week it was available in late March and early April.

“We were very happy with the number,” she said. “If you’re talking about the ability to sample a show, that’s a great sampling opportunity.”

Ms. Karpas said online exit surveys filled out by 1,800 AOL users showed a 90 percent satisfaction rating with the episode. Almost 25 percent of the survey respondents said they had never seen the show before, and 70 percent said they were likely to watch “Everwood” on The WB in the future.

“That’s the operative statistic,” she said of the hundreds of people who said they were new to “Everwood.” AOL Television plans to conduct an exit survey for “Jack & Bobby” to determine the level of awareness for the show, the intent to view, and satisfaction with the episode.

AOL Television is a service available to all of AOL’s 24 million subscribers. It offers short-form programming, video previews and behind-the-scenes coverage of popular shows, both inside and outside the Time Warner family. Last season AOL Television worked with Fox to create companion programming built around the music featured in its drama “The O.C.” Ms. Karpas said the “Jack & Bobby” promotion could have happened with non-Warner Bros. product.

“I think it’s about relationships and having good relationships with your partners,” she said. “Because we have a good relationship with The WB and Warner Bros., it works well.”

As far as the Time Warner corporate cousins involved-AOL Television, Warner Bros. Television and The WB-the promotion indeed is a winner. But premiering a new show on the Internet before it airs on its home broadcast network could have implications for other parties typically involved in any television show. The creative guilds, which are always concerned about residuals for their members, could have questions. The local WB affiliates might wonder why original content that used to be exclusive to them is showing up in other places. And advertisers who bought spots on a new quality show at the upfronts will now be airing ads on programming that has already been put into the marketplace.

“We did have a conversation about all the different constituencies,” Ms. Kolb said. “It really came back to a very simple point-all those people care about ratings. If that helps us get better ratings on our air, we believe everybody involved wins. This is all a part of our job, to make sure we deliver big numbers for that show.”

Paul Maguire, senior VP for network communications at The WB, said the network did not have discussions with advertisers but did bring up the issue with affiliates. As for an issue with the guilds, since the episode is being shown for promotional purposes only, residuals or other kinds of payments won’t be a factor.

“There’s no revenue attached,” he said of the AOL Television netcast.

Mr. Ancier said the benefits of the added promotion would be a plus to any local WB station. “I think the affiliates are smart enough to know this is going to be a positive thing for them,” he said, pointing out that online viewers will not be able to download the episode and that only AOL broadband subscribers within the United States will have access. “It is a very unique situation and a very controlled situation,” Mr. Ancier said. Mr. Schlamme, who is active in the Directors Guild of America, isn’t afraid of what the broadband webcast of “Jack & Bobby” might mean to the creative guilds. “It’s such baby steps we’re doing right now,” he said. . “By doing it like this is how you solve the challenges and not be frightened by them.”

Though The WB is looking at the advance preview as a very targeted promotional move, Mr. Schlamme related it to how computer use and television viewing are bound to intersect. The conventional wisdom that computers are an unsatisfying way to enjoy programming usually seen through a television is beginning to change, especially for younger viewers, he said.

“I have a 16-year-old boy,” he said. “To say his computer is a very good friend of his is underestimating the intimacy he has with that computer, even with all the restrictions we give him. The truth is it is enormously personal. It’s enormously involving. It’s been treated as a graphic device, not as a device for s
torytelling. The computer is going to be used to tell stories, and that is the direction we are moving in.”