In early January, NBC premiered the first episode of its quirky new musical-drama Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, airing it behind a special episode of Ellen’s Game of Games. On Sunday night, the network will finally air the show’s next episode. This is not how things usually work in TV — but there is a purpose behind the Peacock’s protracted Playlist pause.
NBC has used the long gap between installments of the Jane Levy–led series to make it ubiquitous, striking deals to place the show’s first episode on a slew of large digital platforms like YouTube, Hulu, Facebook, and Spotify, while also embedding the hour in ads the network took out on sites such as Playbill, Bustle, and yes, Vulture. NBC’s hope: Younger audiences who’ve been abandoning linear TV will take notice of Zoey before it settles into its weekly broadcast run. “We’re approaching the launch and the marketing of the show in a way that would attract the people that might not necessarily come and see it on a linear platform,” says Liza Katz, the network’s co-head of scripted programming.
Early evidence suggests NBC’s strategy may be working. The network tells Vulture that viewership of Zoey on its digital platforms (NBC.com and the NBC app), combined with Hulu, YouTube, and Facebook has been large enough to make it the NBC’s top digital launch of all time, surpassing previous record-holder Manifest (which, in fairness, didn’t have the advantage of being on YouTube or Facebook). NBC also says between 3.5 million and 4 million have watched the full 43-minute Zoey episode via YouTube alone, matching the 3.7 million people who caught the show via live TV or DVR within a week of its first broadcast on the network.
The number of people who’ve sampled at least a little bit of Zoey via YouTube is even bigger: The pilot has so far racked up more than 42 million views on the service. YouTube counts anyone who watches a video for 30 seconds or longer as a viewer, so that doesn’t mean 42 million people have watched the full pilot. Still, NBC says people who did watch Zoey on YouTube stuck around for eight minutes on average.
It’s not particularly unusual these days for networks to make a pilot available for digital sampling ahead of a show’s premiere on linear platforms. But what NBC has done with Zoey is much less common: It debuted the show on regular TV and then spent nearly six weeks aggressively trying to get audiences to discover it on streaming before its return to broadcast. Jeff Bader, NBC’s president of program planning, strategy, and research, says the goal was “to capture the full spectrum of potential audience for this show” as quickly as possible. “We knew from the time that we picked this up that the most logical audience for the show [was] going to be younger than the people who watch day and date on linear,” Bader says. “So the problem is, how do you get people to know the show exists?”
The solution NBC execs came up with was to air or stream Zoey anywhere potential viewers might be. On linear, that meant carving out a preview for the show on the network’s strong Tuesday night lineup, putting the premiere behind the highly promoted season premiere of Ellen’s Game of Games. And on the digital side, NBC made the show available on roughly 20 different platforms and websites, either directly or embedded in sponsored content, in most cases running the show without any commercials. (“The show itself is an ad,” Bader says.)
NBC is leaning into digital for the Zoey launch in part as a response to the data it’s seen for recent young-skewing shows. Per Bader, several series with strong followings among viewers under 35 — The Good Place, Superstore, and Good Girls — started off with meh linear ratings but have become very big hits on digital. That digital success has even resulted in growth in linear ratings. Rather than wait months or years for something similar to happen with Zoey, NBC execs are hoping this marketing approach will jump-start things. “We love the idea of having a five-week runway for the show to be discovered on digital platforms, as well as people catching up on DVR and even on Hulu,” Bader explains.
NBC’s strategy here echoes the groundbreaking 2009 launch campaign executed by Fox on behalf of another musically minded series, Ryan Murphy’s Glee. Its pilot first aired on Fox in May (behind the season finale of American Idol), with episode two following nearly four months later. Bader readily admits Glee “was something that we referenced after we pitched the idea” of previewing Zoey last month ahead of its digital launch. But the radical changes in how audiences consume TV now versus 11 years ago have, in theory, made it much easier for NBC to get its show in front of viewers. Hulu was just getting started back when Glee launched, internet-connected TVs were still in their infancy, and Spotify hadn’t even launched in America.
It’s too early to say whether NBC’s Zoey push will translate into long-term success for the show. While Bader says “the digital sampling for [Zoey] is unbelievable,” getting people to check out a show’s pilot doesn’t necessarily mean they will become weekly fans. A year ago, CBS got over 22 million people to sample the premiere of The World’s Best by airing it after the Super Bowl; less than a month later, the show’s same-day audience fell below 3 million viewers and it never returned. Bader also concedes that a big broadcast network like NBC needs its shows to have at least some sort of pulse on the linear platform. “If a show doesn’t do anything on broadcast, but it’s a big digital show, that’s not our goal,” he says. “Our goal is to find shows that work in both.”
Whatever the ultimate outcome is for Zoey, expect more efforts like the one NBC is making on its behalf. As linear networks evolve in the streaming era, they’ll need to keep experimenting with ways to connect audiences to their shows. “We’re all looking at how we can be more innovative,” Katz says. “Everybody is fighting for attention and eyeballs. We are really proud of our shows, but want people to actually see them.”