How Streamers Are Reimagining Network Premiere Week

Photo: Netflix

For decades, Premiere Week has been a remarkably effective marketing tool for broadcast networks looking to promote their fall lineups. By having the vast majority of their new and returning fall shows kick off within the same seven- to ten-day timeframe, the Big Four have been able to signal to audiences that summer rerun and reality-show season is over, and that it’s time to once again sample the comedies and dramas they’re got on deck. Nothing similar has existed in the streaming space up until now because the digital platforms roll out new stuff virtually every week. But this fall, several streamers are planning massive marketing events designed to serve a similar function as premiere week: getting viewers hyped for a boatload of upcoming programming:

➽ Netflix Wednesday revealed plans for a “global fan event” it’s calling Tudum,  a day-long virtual YouTube livestream packed with content drops from roughly six dozen of the streamer’s series, movies and specials. According to a press release, folks who tune in “will be the first to hear breaking news and see first looks, new trailers, and exclusive clips during interactive panels and conversations with the creators and stars from Netflix.” The global Tudum–the name is meant to evoke the sound you hear when starting a Netflix original– is an evolution of a similarly titled in-person event Netflix Brazil first held over four days in January 2020, and then repeated virtually last fall. (Local versions like Brazil’s will still take place, in some cases tied to the global festival.)

Two weeks ago, Disney CEO Bob Chapek announced November 12 as the first-ever “Disney+ Day,” telling investors to expect “a company-wide cross-promotional event” geared toward promoting the company’s main streaming platform. Few details about the event have been released yet, but the date coincides with the two-year anniversary of Disney+ as well as the premiere of a new Home Alone sequel on the streamer. It will almost certainly share some DNA with D23, the Mouse House’s 12-year-old fan convention. Since 2009, Disney has been using D23 to debut footage and trailers from upcoming film and TV projects. D+ Day figures to be something similar, but hyper focused on streaming (and no doubt utilizing many parts of the Magic Kingdom to help spread the word.)

➽ Though much smaller in scale, Paramount+ is once again dubbing September 8 Star Trek Day and will livestream six different panels tied to the streamer’s multiple Trek series. A similar event took place last year and was used to promote the October return of Star Trek: Discovery, as well as the broader franchise.

To be sure, the parallel between broadcast premiere week and the three aforementioned events isn’t exact. The former is a stunt designed to get viewers to immediately check out programming right away, while Tudum and Disney+ Day are more about promoting a vibe, i.e., “there’s so much #content about to hit our platforms, you shouldn’t even think of canceling your subscription right now.” Given how intense the battle for attention has become, getting current and potential customers to focus on the scope of your offering is at least as important as driving viewing of specific titles. And I think that’s particularly true for both Netflix and Disney+ this fall, though for slightly different reasons.

In the case of Netflix, the fourth quarter should mark the end of the streamer’s COVID-caused programming drought. While it might not seem it given how many original offerings the platform has still pumped out over the past year, last spring and summer’s production shutdowns absolutely had an impact on how many big new titles Netflix has been able to debut during the first part of 2021. But by all accounts, things will be getting back to “normal” for Netflix in the fall, which means audiences should expect to be overwhelmed with new releases like back in the Before Times. Indeed, just this week the streamer said it will be releasing a whopping 40-plus feature films between September 1 and the end of the year. Tudum seems timed to act as a sort of subliminal lightswitch, letting Netflix members know that the original programming floodgates are about to open once more. What’s more, given the general slowdown in the platform’s subscriber growth the past few months, the event figures to be a good promotional hook through which to spur new signups.

As for Disney+, while COVID also impacted its release schedule to a degree, the streamer was just a few months old when the pandemic hit, so audiences didn’t have many expectations about the flow of new releases. (Plus, a key part of the streamer’s appeal is its massive library of classic Disney titles.) But as signaled late last year at an investor’s conference, Disney+ has been planning a massive increase in the number of originals for the last part of 2021 and 2022. Disney+ Day will likely function as the consumer version of last winter’s industry event, showing off how much of the slate revealed last year is ready to go and previewing new additions. It’s also well-timed, since folks who signed up for one-year Disney+ plans in November 2019, then renewed last year, will once again be deciding whether to commit to another year.

Events such as Tudum and Disney+ Day require a not insignificant financial commitment, given the costs associated with gathering and filming or live-streaming talent (some of whom might also need hair and makeup, etc.) and producing all those trailers and teases. But in the overall scheme of things, if done well, these stunts could turn into massive publicity and marketing coups. Writers at entertainment sites around the world will post dozens of stories and tweets about various projects highlighted during the respective events. Social-media channels will light up with reactions, prompting millions of video views and raising awareness of titles. And unlike broader events such as ComicCon or the TV Critics Association press tour, platforms maintain full control: There’s no worrying about pesky reporters asking embarrassing questions or having to hew to arbitrary time limits for panels. As a journalist, I can’t say I completely love companies serving up unfiltered propaganda to audiences (even if there’s still plenty of room for objective reporting on whatever gets revealed). But from a marketing point of view, these mega-events seem like no-brainers.

True Daily Trouble

Earlier this week on Vulture, I dug into the whole Mike Richards mess at Jeopardy!, trying to figure out how producer Sony Pictures Television botched the process of replacing the late Alex Trebek. I don’t know that I reached any definitive conclusions, other than that the studio seems to have put a lot of trust into Richards for reasons I quite frankly don’t understand. Yes, by all accounts he did a very good job producing The Price Is Right and Let’s Make a Deal for a few years. And sources not associated with Sony have told me his stewardship of the show during COVID was admirable.

But Richards is hardly some sort of savant or savior. I’ve read spin from his camp that the franchises were “tired” or “fading” before he showed up. Perhaps, but they’re also both iconic formats which air on CBS (one of the best possible places for throwback content), and in Drew Carey and Wayne Brady, both have top-tier hosts with strong fan bases. Richards may have made TPIR and Deal better, but neither was on the verge of cancellation. And based on the reporting by The Ringer’s Claire McNear, some staffers also believe he created a hostile work environment on TPIR. Even if Sony has been wowed by what Richards has done as producer of Jeopardy! this year, and even if it feels the online backlash against him has been out of proportion to his alleged (and admitted) sins, I remain baffled that it has so far decided to keep him in charge of a show it now has admitted he’s not fit to host. One of the first rules of crisis management is to rip the bandage off immediately rather than let a wound fester. Keeping Richards in the House that Alex (and Art) Built seems like an invitation to continued turbulence.

That said, what folks in the media and on Twitter think does not always reflect what’s in the mind of the average viewer or voter. If so, Joe Biden would have never made it past the 2020 Democratic primaries. The New York Times and other outlets have reported that Sony heavily relied on audience research in determining who should be the host of Jeopardy!, which indicates the company (like most in Hollywood) puts a high value on data in driving key decisions. I’m not sure how smart that is in this case, particularly since one of Sony’s biggest profit engines — reruns of Seinfeld — might not exist had NBC ultimately decided to ignore focus groups which very clearly showed viewers hated that show’s pilot episode. But if data has been key so far, it wouldn’t shock me to discover Sony was busy conducting more research to see whether or not the average Jeopardy! audience member cares about the controversy over Richards, or even remembers him from the few weeks he hosted the show.

I’ve heard from more than one Hollywood insider this week variations on the idea that Jeopardy!’s typical viewer is probably a white person in her ’60s living in the Midwest, and that such a person probably does not care what Richards said on his podcast or whether he “rigged” the host-selection process. While the show likely reaches a much broader cross-section of viewers than some think (and at least based on one 2016 survey, we know it is more popular with Democrats than Republicans), I don’t at all doubt there’s some truth to the notion most Jeopardy! viewers really don’t give a lick who is producing. And as I said in my story, odds are the show is going to be fine, ratings-wise, even after the last few weeks of bad PR. If Sony decides to stand by its man and keep Richards in charge, the ratings are unlikely to collapse. Execs at the studio are just going to have to decide how much they care about bad optics.

Final thought: I’ve known Sony boss Tony Vinciquerra since my first days as a reporter back in the early 1990s, when he ran WBZ-TV in Boston and I was a freelancer for the Boston Herald. We’re hardly best buds, but over the course of three decades, he’s remained the same solid, steady guy he was when I first interviewed him — just a lot more powerful. He’s known in the TV world as an old-school exec and straight shooter, not some soulless exec who cares only about maximizing profits. I think my article this week made it clear I disagree with how his studio has dealt with Jeopardy!, but folks shouldn’t assume those errors are the result of Vinciquerra, or anyone else at Sony, not caring about the show or its fans. I just happen to think they put their faith in the wrong person.

How Streamers Are Reimagining Network Premiere Week