Five principles for launching a TV show

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BBH LA's senior brand strategist explains how to make a new show must-watch, even when dealing with audiences inundated by content.

Between 2006 and 2016, the number of scripted TV series jumped from 192 to more than 450, with broadcast, cable and streaming all fighting for hits. The world watches a billion hours of YouTube per day, and users spend over 8 percent of their waking hours streaming Netflix. But it’s still not enough to keep up. Everywhere you turn there’s a new show. A new trailer. It goes in one ear and out the other. 

So how do you capture attention? How do you make a show must-watch? Not too long ago, all you had to do was put it on air. There were only a handful of channels. There was only so much to watch. Not anymore.

While there is no surefire way to guarantee a hit, there are principles to follow—five to be exact. This list is nowhere near all-inclusive, and of course you’ll have your outliers, but it’s a good place to start. 

1. Big hits start with a simple idea

A show is complicated. There are a lot of moving parts, and it’s tough to pinpoint what you want to focus on communicating. The lead character? The key romance? The twist? But the best launch strategies start with a simple idea. 

Take "The Santa Clarita Diet," which decided to launch the show like you would any other diet. From the billboards that resembled existing diet billboards, to the microsite with testimonials, to the pushy influencer-led social presence, the idea was simple: Promote the Santa Clarita Diet like the newest fad diet.

"House of Cards" Season 4 (not an initial launch, I know, but bear with me) also saw massive success starting with a simple idea: Run Underwood for president in real time, with our other real-life candidates. #FU2016 was the most used hashtag during the real Republican primary debate (kind of ominous in retrospect), and the campaign had over 6.6 billion impressions.

2. Big is bigger than ever

The conversation in entertainment is increasingly about "niche." You’ll hear, "Find a devoted audience who loves you and f*ck everyone else." Well, I respectfully disagree. And so does the data. 

Mass hits are more important than ever, and the biggest players are more powerful than ever.  Of the thousands of films released in 2016, Disney made all of the top 5. On Amazon Music, 91 percent of the available songs have been downloaded fewer than 100 times.

Ask yourself: What in my show can appeal to the masses? "Stranger Things" certainly did. On the surface, it’s a sci-fi thriller featuring kids, targeted at adults. A lot of niches in there. So much so that 15 cable networks rejected it.

But Netflix saw the mass appeal in it: the nostalgia for the 80s. Their promotions, although minimal, all played to this nostalgia. "Stranger Things" was labeled "A love letter to the 80s." The monster and the "upside-down" and the dangerous experiments on an innocent child were secondary. Popularity and mass fandom followed.

3. Hang out with your audience 

Say you’re 22 and really into a certain girl (or guy). You want her notice you, but she hasn’t. What do you do: Send her 15 texts in a row telling her how great you are, or go to the bar she always hangs out at and buy her a drink? 

If you said the former, Godspeed my friend. Because talking at someone and throwing messages at them always pales in comparison to hanging out with them in person. And the same goes for TV shows. You want someone to notice you? You can’t rely on trailers and banners and posters. You need face-to-face time.

This can be counterintuitive for an industry that works behind screens. If you’re a YouTube show, it’s natural to run video ads on YouTube. If you’re a big network show under Universal Studios, it’s easy to use ad time on Universal-owned networks. Going into the real world is out of your comfort zone.

But it pays off, and the "Walking Dead" knows it. In 2010, they made a huge splash at Comic-Con for their season 1 launch. Zombie street teams, an engaged panel and a set-realistic photo booth won the attention of attendees, and now it’s the biggest show to come out of a cable network ever

Actually meeting audiences where they are, and contributing to their passions and experiences in real life, goes a long way. 

4. Hijack iconic cultural codes 

Take something people already know and put your show’s own twist on it. Movies have done this really well in the past, and it applies just as much for TV.

In its simplest form, this means Deadpool recreating Burt Reynold’s famous Cosmo centerfold on a bearskin rug to portray his sex appeal to viewers. Guaranteed to make you smile.

"The Lego Batman Movie" created its own version of MTV Cribs: Gotham Cribs, which has amassed over a million views. Batman takes audiences on a tour of Wayne Manor, using hip-hop music and other slang, similar to the now-cancelled show.

Hijacking an iconic cultural code allows your show to connect with a viewer on a personal level—almost like you’re sharing an inside joke.

5. Content is king, but context is queen

It’s not about making sure your trailer airs in the right time slot—context goes far beyond that. At the very least, it means playing to the calendar year. And at the most, it means entering into the cultural conversation with real contributions. 

"Narcos" is probably the best example of using context to amplify and contribute to conversation. When it launched, it ran a native ad in the Wall Street Journal on the economics of the cocaine trade. The interactive think piece had all you’d expect from a major publication, but it didn’t specifically push the series. It created a meaningful, authentic connection that worked. "Narcos" was estimated to be the most popular digital series in the US in 2016.

So there you have it. Now all you need is the show.