Borrowing the Tricks of TV News to Set a Show Apart
FIRST, television presented real news. Then came fake news on parody programs like “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.” This weekend, Fox Broadcasting will send fake news vans onto the streets of four cities to promote a real show.
The show is “Back to You,” a situation comedy that is scheduled to make its debut at 8 p.m. (Eastern and Pacific times) on Sept. 19 on Fox, part of the News Corporation. The show is about a pair of news anchors at a station in Pittsburgh who separated when one, portrayed by Kelsey Grammer, left for a job in Los Angeles. The hilarity ensues when a humiliating career setback forces him to return and once again be teamed with the woman who was his professional (and personal) partner, played by Patricia Heaton.
The vans, decorated to look like the news trucks deployed by local TV stations, will cruise the streets of Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York over Labor Day weekend. They will carry the call letters WURG, for the name of the make-believe Channel 9 in Pittsburgh, where “Back to You” is set.
The vans will be staffed by actors dressed in blazers and other garb favored by news anchors, who will hand passers-by pens and other promotional trinkets styled like the items local stations give away.
In addition to the vans, the agency behind the campaign to publicize “Back to You,” A.D.D. Marketing and Advertising in Los Angeles, will put up a Web site that creates humorous images of users as news anchors, seated at a desk between Ms. Heaton and Mr. Grammer. The images, which can be sent by e-mail, will be at www.backtoyouanchorizer.com, which is to go live this weekend.
The “anchorizer” is arriving weeks after a corporate sibling of Fox Broadcasting, 20th Century Fox, promoted “The Simpsons Movie” with www.simpsonizeme.com, which creates images of users in the mode of characters from “The Simpsons.”
The similarity between efforts to create anticipation for a major summer movie and efforts to encourage viewers to watch a TV series illustrates the increasing sophistication of campaigns to promote new shows.
Fox and the other big broadcast networks will spend tens of millions of dollars in the coming weeks to try to produce the elusive and ephemeral phenomenon known as buzz about the prime-time lineups for the 2007-8 season. As the “Back to You” plans demonstrate, a growing portion of those budgets is being devoted to nontraditional tactics like Web sites, events and e-mail messages intended to be shared.
“We’re just trying to break through in a marketplace that is absolutely saturated, especially at this time of the year, where everyone is talking to you everywhere you turn,” said Joe Earley, who was recently promoted by Fox Broadcasting in Los Angeles to be executive vice president for marketing and communications.
“People are so busy, but they somehow find the time to scan in a picture of a co-worker, make him look ridiculous and forward it on to others,” Mr. Earley said, laughing.
The plans for “Back to You” also include advertising in conventional media like television, radio, print and outdoor signs. The additional elements in the new media reflect the challenges that Fox Broadcasting faces in getting viewers to sample “Back to You.”
“It’s coming on as a new show, in a tough time period, having to open the night,” Mr. Earley said, referring to the scheduling of the series at the leadoff slot on Wednesdays, where it will face popular returning shows like “America’s Next Top Model” on CW and “Deal or No Deal” on NBC as well as highly publicized newcomers like “Pushing Daisies” on ABC and “Kid Nation” on CBS.
Often, networks like to have new series follow established ones, as Fox Broadcasting has done on Mondays, when a new drama, “K-Ville,” will appear after “Prison Break.” But that is not possible in every instance on the complicated chessboard that is a network’s prime-time lineup.
“With all the shows coming on, how do you get people excited?” asked Scott Leonard, president of A.D.D. “The shows that are going to be talked about are the ones that are going to be watched.”
A.D.D. has worked on other Fox Broadcasting series, like “Mad TV” and “Talkshow With Spike Feresten” along with projects for other News Corporation properties, like Fox Home Entertainment and the Fox Searchlight movie studio.
Other steps by Fox Broadcasting to gain attention for “Back to You” include posting a video clip from the premiere episode on YouTube. In the clip, Chuck Darling, the character portrayed by Mr. Grammer, is working at his station in Los Angeles and unleashes an obscenity-laced rant — unaware that he is on the air live.
In the episode, the incident and the posting of the clip on YouTube are factors in the character’s move back to Pittsburgh. (The profanity Mr. Grammer utters in the clip will be edited for the episode when it appears on Fox Broadcasting.)
Nontraditional methods to advertise TV series are “absolutely going to become as common as doing promos on air,” said Steven Levitan, an executive producer of “Back to You” who is the co-creator of the sitcom with Christopher Lloyd.
Mr. Levitan, who spoke during a break from filming the fourth episode of the show, expressed enthusiasm for the campaign by A.D.D.
“The clutter is tremendous, so I think the more novel the approach, the better,” he said. “You have to reach out to people in any way you can.”
That does not mean every offbeat idea thrills Mr. Levitan, who has also worked on sitcoms like “Just Shoot Me” and “Stacked.” As he discussed the clip on YouTube with a reporter, he noticed that the title referred to Mr. Grammer as “Frasier” — the character Mr. Grammer played on “Frasier” and “Cheers” — rather than as “Chuck Darling” or even as “Kelsey Grammer.”
“I did mention to them it shouldn’t be ‘Frasier,’ ” Mr. Levitan said, sighing. “Here we are, trying to create a new character.”