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TV Networks Pursue the 'Super Fan'

Marketers are going to extremes, and even into nightclubs, to reach people who will talk up shows for the fall season.

September 19, 2005|Meg James | Times Staff Writer

Maria Johnson, a bank teller from Memphis, N.Y., watches TV with a devotion that borders on the religious. On Sundays, pro football plays on her family's 25-inch set from noon until night. Thursday evenings revolve around "Survivor" on CBS, so she has to tape Fox's "The O.C.," which airs during the same hour, for later viewing.

Johnson, 31, not only watches a lot but also prides herself on spreading the word to get others to tune in. She hooked her husband, Corey, on ABC's hit drama "Lost" last season and they haven't missed an episode. Johnson also talked so much about Fox's "American Idol" and CBS' "Amazing Race" that a friend at work became addicted too.

"I'm really into TV, I know what shows are on and I plan out exactly what I'm going to watch," Johnson said. "And if there's a reality show on, I have to watch it right away so I can talk about it the next day."

Johnson gives new meaning to the term TV evangelist, and lately reaching people like her has become the Holy Grail of network executives. As the 2005-06 television season officially kicks off today, the six major networks have rolled out multipronged marketing campaigns to create the buzz that drives viewership.

But this year more than ever before, those campaigns have been aimed at "super fans" -- a chatty, peer-influencing group that networks believe can help them win the ratings wars.

"They are the fuse that lights the firecracker, and really sets things on fire," said Lewis Goldstein, co-president of marketing for the WB network, which after two lousy seasons desperately needs to scare up a new hit.

So for "Supernatural," its new Tuesday night suspense thriller, the network -- which is owned by Time Warner Inc. and Tribune Co. (which publishes the Los Angeles Times) -- has gone beyond mere promotional ads. To reach the show's intended audience -- young, hip horror fans -- the WB installed special mirrors in about 200 nightclubs in three cities. The mirrors displayed a haunting image from the show's pilot: a terrified woman seemingly pinned to a ceiling.

The idea was simple, said the WB's other marketing president, Bob Bibb: to get people talking.

"Our best chance of success is getting the core group hooked up from the very beginning," said Bibb, who also sent "Supernatural" coffee cup sleeves to nearly 500 cafes around the country. When heated, the sleeves revealed the same spooky image of a floating woman.

This year's widespread push to try something different is fueled at least in part by a desire to mimic ABC's success last season. The network, owned by Walt Disney Co., won plenty of free publicity last year for the clever stunts it used to launch its most promising new shows.

To lure women to "Desperate Housewives," for example, the network supplied dry cleaners around the country with thousands of bags that carried the show's catchphrase: "Everyone has a little dirty laundry." To spark interest in the mysterious, trapped-on-an-island drama "Lost," ABC arranged for tiny bottles to wash ashore on beaches. Inside was a message: "Lost" could be "found" on Wednesdays.

"If you do things right, you get higher 'talk value,' " said Michael Benson, ABC's senior vice president for marketing. This season, he's at it again: to hype "Commander in Chief," a new drama starring Geena Davis as the first woman president, ABC got the U.S. Treasury to OK the circulation of an undisclosed number of dollar bills with stickers of Davis' face covering George Washington's.

"It's about creating something that you want to tell your friends about, and show your family members," Benson said, adding this caveat: "You've got to make sure it's organic to the show, original and unexpected."

This year, the networks together have spent more on marketing than ever before: $200 million, by some estimates.

In part, that expenditure is prompted by the fact that the networks are locked in a tighter-than-usual ratings race. In contrast to years past, when NBC was the undisputed leader, less than one ratings point separated the Big Four networks last season among the coveted 18- to 49-year-old demographic. As a result, the fight to pull ahead has gotten even more intense.

The battle to reach more eyeballs has also grown desperate as many people have left TV behind. This summer, network ratings plunged as millions turned to other entertainment options, including the Internet, video games and movies on DVD.

Stuart Fischoff, a media psychologist at Cal State L.A., said the decline in viewership meant the networks needed to be more creative. "What they have been doing hasn't been working," he said. "They are trying to staunch the hemorrhage."

That's where the super fans come in.

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