Why Fox Spent the Past 7 Months Trying to Get You to Watch Scream Queens Tonight

It all started with Friday the 13th

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If you're one of two dozen broadcast shows debuting this fall, how do you break through the glut of TV marketing and connect with viewers? Fox tried something novel for its new series Scream Queens: It kicked off the campaign last winter.

Ryan Murphy's new comedy-horror anthology about a mounting body count on a college campus debuts at 8 p.m. tonight with a two-hour episode. The premiere caps an unprecedented seven-month marketing campaign for the network, which started promoting the show in February after ordering it straight to series in October.

"We had the luxury of knowing we were going to series very early, so there was no impediment to deciding, let's spend some money on Scream Queens early. And in such a competitive marketplace there's so much messaging, there are so many shows," said Gary Newman, co-chairman and co-CEO of Fox Television Group. "So we decided to get out on Scream Queens before anyone else was."

That meant rolling out a campaign long before May upfronts, the earliest that networks promote most fall shows, when they set their schedules and solidify their new series. "We started to look at how long it takes to get a show to break through these days and the fact that we had an advantage, knowing that it was for sure going as a series," said Joe Earley, COO, Fox Television Group. 

During early marketing meetings, the network decided to use Friday the 13th as a launch pad for the campaign. After discovering that 2015's first Friday the 13th was in February (with another one falling in March), "we kicked everything into high gear and targeted that for the launch," said Earley. "No one could remember a scripted show's campaign beginning that early, but we thought Scream Queens from Ryan Murphy deserved something that had never been done before."

Even before series production began, Fox filmed promotional content with stars Emma Roberts and Keke Palmer. It debuted the first teaser on Feb. 13, and rolled out new content on the 13th of every month. The network targeted buyers and advertisers during upfronts, where street teams of sorority girls and fraternity guys with knives stuck in their backs lined the entrance to New York's Beacon Theatre, cheering and handing out ice cream to attendees.

Three months ago, the network switched from the 13th of every month to releasing content on Tuesday, the day that Scream Queens is airing this fall. "We made sure that every Tuesday, something was happening," said Earley, including early trailers based on footage from the first episodes and additional promos. Earley has also been crafting content for each Scream Queen star's distinctive fan base: Lea Michele's Glee fans; Emma Roberts and Skyler Samuels' American Horror Story audience; and Jamie Lee Curtis' diehard Halloween aficionados.

Going into fall, Fox committed to an "extensive" media buy and "our biggest campaign for the fall" for Scream Queens, said Earley. "It covers everything: print, electronic, radio, cable, social, stunts, Comic-Con and street teams."

Fox is also taking a page from the playbook it used to market Murphy's Glee, holding extensive screenings throughout the country prior to its premiere. "Scream Queens is a little bit like Glee in that it would be very easy to misjudge it based on the cast, or even the key art," said Earley, who screened the premiere episode in 50 markets to build word of mouth. "The characters are vicious, and we want people to know that going into the show so that they watch it properly."

Earley also tried to send a message with the show's "intentionally sophisticated" key art: "We've got all of the actors with blood on their hands, yet they're all very happy and they look beautiful," he said. "We're showing that the show isn't cheap horror, and we're trying to make sure we get the comedy across as well."

Now Fox is hoping that its long marketing game will pay off as Scream Queens premieres. "You have a great deal of confidence in someone like Ryan Murphy and the cast that he assembled, that the goods are going to be there, so we took an opportunity to jump on it and created great awareness early on," said Newman. "I think it will benefit us this fall."

@jasonlynch jason.lynch@adweek.com Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.