Alien Promo Power

Aug 1, 2005  •  Post A Comment

In a break from the programming trends of recent years, three of the six broadcast networks plan to roll out new alien-themed sci-fi series this fall, reintroducing a genre that long has been considered a tough sell. Differentiating the new projects for viewers is a priority, according to the top marketing executives for ABC, CBS and NBC.

The new shows have striking similarities, but the marketing gurus are preparing to unleash very different promotional campaigns.

The three shows, ABC’s “Invasion,” CBS’s “Threshold” and NBC’s “Surface,” all revolve around what appear to be visitors from outer space, with the mostly unseen aliens using bodies of water as a cover.

To promote the projects, ABC is focusing on family dynamics, CBS is highlighting an elite government team and NBC is touting a “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”-like wonder.

The campaigns reflect the different time periods slotted for each show and the varied audiences each is trying to reach. ABC’s show will air at 10 p.m. and CBS’s show will air at 9 p.m., so both are looking for a more adult audience. NBC, on the other hand, is airing its show at 8 p.m. and is looking for an audience that includes younger viewers.

Even with the three similar shows premiering within weeks of each other, opportunity exists for all of them to find some sort of viable audience, said John Miller, chief marketing officer for NBC Universal Television Group.

“Clearly there are about 10 procedural crime dramas on various networks right now, so there may be room for a couple of shows in the sci-fi realm,” Mr. Miller told TelevisionWeek. “That’s not to say that’s not a challenging task for all three marketing departments.”

As part of their plan, the networks held panel discussions for their shows during the Television Critics Association’s tour.

At ABC, one important element in selling “Invasion” is resisting the temptation to focus on the detailed plot points of the pilot, which profiles a blended family of first responders in the Everglades town of Homestead, Fla., in the aftermath of a hurricane. Instead, ABC is giving viewers a look at the broader themes that define “Invasion,” Senior VP of Marketing Mike Benson said.

He made a comparison to the strategy the network used with “Lost” and “Desperate Housewives,” which were introduced to audiences last summer and fall minus many of the specifics that defined both shows.

“We sold the feel of those shows, and then the shows delivered on it,” Mr. Benson told TelevisionWeek, noting that capturing the feel of a new series comes about by simplifying.

“The process that we go through is to drill down to what the show at the core is all about,” Mr. Benson said. “‘Lost’ isn’t a science-fiction show. ‘Lost’ looked more like a mystery show than anything. It’s a character show, and the island is a character.”

With “Invasion,” the series at its core is about a family-specifically, a family going through great change, he said.

“It’s a program about evolution more than anything,” Mr. Benson said, noting that evolution offers families the opportunity to grow closer together but is a force that can also “tear families apart.”

In his TCA press session, “Invasion” creator and executive producer Shaun Cassidy defined the new series in similar terms.

“This is a family drama and I come from a complicated family,” he said. “You can explore a big picture on a big canvas by using interesting people.”

The fact that two similar shows are out there isn’t a concern, Mr. Cassidy said.

“I didn’t know there were other shows until we delivered,” he said, noting that he has created an overall mythology for the series but has left himself room to make specific adjustments when it comes to character and plot. In addition, Mr. Cassidy pointed out that his show, airing Wednesdays at 10 p.m. (ET), would have the added benefit of a “Lost” lead-in, a show that explores similar themes and provides “Invasion” with a large built-in audience.

“This show is about the emotional recovery of a family, of the town and ultimately the series,” he said.

CBS developed its strategy for “Threshold” by first looking at the title, said George Schweitzer, president of marketing for the network.

In the series, “‘Threshold’ is the plan that the government has for dealing with an alien invasion,” Mr. Schweitzer told TelevisionWeek. “Rather than a generic invasion, it’s an actual plan the government has invented.”

The CBS series profiles an elite yet unconventional team of scientists charged with traveling the globe exploring the phenomena caused by an advanced form of unseen life that may pose a threat to the human race. The team is required to keep its work secret from the still unsuspecting public. Unlike “Invasion,” which will stay focused on one small town in Florida, “Threshold” takes a broader, more scientific approach to figuring out what the aliens are.

“Our selling point is ‘The aliens are here, but don’t worry, we have a plan,'” Mr. Schweitzer said. “That’s our point of difference.”

Embracing Scariness

“Threshold” will also embrace its potential to scare, said David Goyer, one of the series’ executive producers.

“Our show is meant to be disturbing and genuinely scary, because I think if something like this did happen, it would be disturbing and scary,” he said, adding, “It’s more ‘Signs’ than ‘Independence Day.'”

CBS plans to tap its corporate experience promoting sci-fi fare, Mr. Schweitzer said.

“We have a lot of experience through UPN with our ‘Star Trek’ franchise,” he said. “We have a very good marketing base with sci-fi people.”

The show includes a connection to ‘Star Trek” thanks to the casting of Brent Spiner, who played the character Data in several “Star Trek” series and feature films.

Platforms Mr. Schweitzer plans to use to promote the show include CBS’s male-skewing Sunday NFL games, the Paramount-owned “Star Trek” attraction in Las Vegas and the Paramount-owned theme parks.

“We follow all roads; we pursue all leads,” he said.

But success will come only if “Threshold” attracts viewers beyond a cult audience, Mr. Schweitzer said.

“The key is, how do you go broader than the science-fiction fan,” he said. “The bottom line for viewers is, is it entertaining, is it worth an hour of my time and why?”

Breaking the ‘Surface’

NBC’s Mr. Miller said all three networks are approaching their alien shows differently.

“CBS is probably approaching it with a harder sci-fi edge,” he told TelevisionWeek. “I don’t want to criticize what they are doing, but that’s a tough sell, having done that a couple times before. You really niche down the audience when you go pure sci-fi. ABC is taking more a family approach, and they have not mentioned aliens one time in there. They say ‘Invasion,’ they say it’s not what you think it is … they are selling it with an ominous air.”

For “Surface,” which profiles a San Diego teen, a Monterey, Calif., marine biologist and a Louisiana diver’s interaction with a mysterious undersea force, NBC will try to invoke a “little bit more ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind,’ a little bit more of an adventure,” Mr. Miller said. That dovetails with executive producer/creator Josh Pate’s comments about the show at TCA.

“We’re an 8 o’clock show; we’re a big family adventure,” Mr. Pate said. “We’re going after a really different tone. It’s about awe and wonder. … People always want to know, ‘Is the species good or bad?’ And my answer is always, ‘Is a tiger good or bad?’ We’re not about gore. We’re not about horror.”

Asked how “Surface” will compare with “Threshold” and “Invasion,” Mr. Pate described his audience. “Our focus is a big, family popcorn adventure that an 8-year old can watch with his grandfather,” he said. “We want to have a big tent.”

In terms of marketing, Mr. Miller said “Surface” already has a tag line. “Our line is, ‘So
mething is in the water,'” he said, noting that on both coasts NBC is hiring biplanes to fly along beaches on Labor Day touting the series, a stunt that will be clearly explained and shouldn’t alarm beachgoers.

“Don’t worry, there’s nothing contagious in the water; it’s just TV promotion,” Mr. Miller said.