When Mr. Robot aired its season-one finale last September, USA Network execs were understandably happy about the show’s solid ratings, amazing buzz, and clear brand-changing potential. The launch was nothing short of a triumph, particularly in an era when grabbing viewers’ attention sometimes seems next to impossible. Until recently, USA might have been content to simply bask in that success for a few months, shifting its focus to other series until the time came to begin hyping last week’s season-two premiere. But that’s not how it works in the age of on-demand viewership: With audiences trained to consume shows however (and whenever) they want, networks are now promoting their biggest titles year-round, particularly when such series are in their infancy. Indeed, as soon as Robot season one ended, USA was already actively pushing audiences who’d heard the buzz about Robot to binge the show online, while figuring out ways to keep those already hooked thinking about the series up until its return. “You can never stop messaging your franchise,” says Alexandra Shapiro*, executive VP of marketing and digital for NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment Networks group. “The moment you stop is the moment the fans stop paying attention.”
Networks have different names for the new never-ending marketing. AMC talks about “Live plus 365,” playing off Nielsen’s various ratings measurement windows; Shapiro and her USA colleagues call it “the always-on phenomenon.” Whatever the terminology, the consensus in the TV industry is, with apologies to David Mamet, that networks should Always Be Marketing. Rob Sharenow, general manager of Lifetime and A&E, says the evolution in how viewers watch TV is what has prompted this seismic shift in how networks manage their programming assets. “It used to be enough to just say, ‘Okay, Project Runway is coming back. Let’s just throw some promos on leading up to the premiere,’” he explains. “Now, it’s a more complicated, multilayered, ongoing game to keep your engagement, to keep people consuming it.” Or, as AMC/Sundance chief Charlie Collier puts it, “It’s our job to keep shows alive all year long.”
The continuous loop of hype has been particularly aggressive with shows launched in 2015 and early 2016. TBS has kept the spotlight on its Rashida Jones slapstick comedy Angie Tribeca by shortening the window between seasons. Because the network had ordered a second season six months before the show’s premiere, TBS was able to have season two on the air just a few months after the weekly run of season one ended. “The awareness of the show was so much higher because season one had just finished airing,” says TBS programming chief Brett Weitz. “We didn’t have to work as hard. We didn’t have to start from a walk — we were starting from a nice comfortable jog.”
Lifetime leaned into critical accolades as part of its intraseason promotion of UnREAL. Awards voters and even TV journalists were targeted, with the network sending the latter group a “binge-watch survival kit” featuring the full first season of the show on DVD and assorted munchies. While networks and studios have been wooing TV Academy members for years with For Your Consideration campaigns, including journalists and critics is less common. “We were conscious of smart influencers we knew who liked the show,” Sharenow says. “In season one, no one knew what it was. In season two, we already had a lot of critical accolades, and true fans of the show, in the communities we respect. So we went deep with influencers in all the marketing.” The show’s Peabody win in April allowed Lifetime to once again cast the show as a major brand departure, just as the network was gearing up its campaign for Emmy nominations. While reviews and awards might not always result in big ratings gains, Sharenow believes they’ve become far more important in the VOD era. “The role critics and commentators play has been very elevated,” he says. “People want stuff curated, and they want their choices validated.” (Lifetime’s year-round marketing of the show has also included the network’s first-ever digital spinoff series, The Faith Diaries, which launched in April and featured a key character from season one.)
AMC didn’t need to do anything special to get audiences to sample Fear the Walking Dead. The Walking Dead spinoff benefited from being associated with the biggest show on TV among viewers under 50. And yet, per Collier’s “Live plus 365” effort, the network made sure to keep audiences engaged with the newbie zombies in between seasons. Once Fear wrapped its shortened six-episode freshman season, AMC had a digital offshoot called Flight 462 ready to go. The roughly 20-minute short was sliced into 16 installments, with a new one airing during commercial breaks of the original’s sixth season. A character from 462 then made the transition to Fear when that series returned for season two. The network has also been a leader in using fan-centric platforms such as Comic-Con to help drive year-round interest in The Walking Dead and even Breaking Bad. And while viewers haven’t always loved the idea of split seasons, AMC’s early decision to serve up single Dead seasons in two distinct chunks was a savvy way of keeping audiences attached to the show for longer period of time (while also allowing late adopters to catch up between half-seasons).
In the case of Mr. Robot, USA made sure (as most networks do these days) to keep the show available on the network’s video on demand platform, allowing cable subscribers who’d heard echoes of last summer’s drumbeat of praise for the show to catch up. But then, at the start of 2016, it did something unusual: It put together a sort of director’s cut of the show for VOD platforms in which episodes ran with unbleeped profanity and unedited adult content, as well as very limited commercials. “We re-pitched the entire season (to viewers) as an almost binge-like experience,” Shapiro says. USA stepped up its marketing of this sort of Robot 1.1, and VOD plays of the show “skyrocketed” in January, she says. Another bump came after the network’s aggressive campaign for the Golden Globes paid off with two wins for the show. Shapiro and her team kept the momentum going in March by investing heavily in SXSW, where the show had premiered a year earlier. “We owned the skyline there,” she says, literally speaking: USA transported the show’s Coney Island ferris wheel to Austin for the convention, sparking a sizable social-media response.
For executives such as Shapiro, the job of selling TV shows was “a lot easier five, ten years ago,” when marketing efforts were almost entirely focused on driving viewers to a limited linear run — i.e., the rollout of new episodes at a scheduled time each week. While making it clear there’s still a “laser focus” on getting (and keeping) linear audiences, “that’s no longer our only objective,” Shapiro explains. “We’re in the franchise-building business. We’re trying to build [series] that are able to have success over a long period of time.”
The move to maintain marketing momentum year-round is being driven mostly by necessity. Huge swaths of the audience are abandoning both live viewing and even DVRs in favor of on-demand platforms, pushing down Nielsen ratings — and thus ad revenue — for both cable and broadcast series. Ongoing marketing serves two purposes: It helps shore up linear ratings by making sure existing fans of a show remain engaged while at the same time allowing networks to woo new audiences more inclined to watch via on-demand platforms. Those digital viewers might not represent as much potential profit as those who still watch on TV, but they’re growing in number. And while USA doesn’t get paid more in the short-term if Robot gets a ton of streams on Amazon, the network stands to benefit over time as it negotiates future deals for streaming rights.
All of this is a shift from just a few years ago. Some industry insiders draw parallels to the feature film business, where movie studios market tentpole franchises — think Star Wars or any of the Marvel movies — as relentlessly as McDonald’s pushes Big Macs. “Television networks … need to become more like studios, reducing their reliance on first-window revenues and reorganizing around longer monetization periods,” AMC/Sundance’s Collier wrote earlier this year in an essay posted at Redef.com “This will likely make networks far more platform-agnostic over time and more focused on the duration and sustainability of intellectual property versus the immediate gratification of overnights (or even live+3 or live+7 ratings).”
We’re already seeing networks adopt this philosophy of patience in other ways: AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire and FX’s The Americans are both examples of networks sticking by shows despite multiple seasons of meh ratings. And we’re now seeing a similar dynamic play out with aforementioned newbies such as Mr. Robot, UnREAL, and Angie Tribeca. All three have experienced a bit of growth in their second seasons this summer, but nothing dramatic. Just a few years ago, there’d probably be palpable disappointment at USA, Lifetime, and TBS right now that months of aggressive marketing and, in the case of Robot and UnREAL, amazing critical response didn’t immediately translate into big Nielsen gains. “You used to judge success of a show based on the first 15 minutes of a premiere,” Shapiro admits. But she insists that’s no longer true. “Do we want to see growth in linear? Sure. But no one [platform] defines success.” Indeed, Shapiro notes that while Mr. Robot has never attracted more than a couple million viewers as measured by traditional ratings, internal USA Network research indicates a much broader audience has sampled the series. “To date, we’ve had over 30 million people and counting consume this franchise. That’s a staggering number,” Shapiro says. “That’s not a linear Nielsen number. That’s a total audience number, when we look at all the legal places people see it. That number is how we keep ourselves motivated. We’re in this for the long haul.”
* A previous version of this article misidentified Alexandra Shapiro as Angela Shapiro.