It’s Not Just TV’s Golden Age, We’re Living in the Golden Age of TV Hype

Network execs bet on over-the-top viral promos to boost viewership

The TBS comedy Angie Tribeca parodied HBO's Game of Thrones stunt. TBS
Headshot of T.L. Stanley

Back in March, HBO made fans watch ice melt for 69 minutes on Facebook Live to find out when Season 7 of Game of Thrones would premiere. A few weeks later, TBS trolled the premium cable channel by “freezing” the title character of one of its own series, slapstick comedy Angie Tribeca, in a life-size block of ice and livestreaming the event.

After enduring her co-stars’ hazardous (and lame) attempts to free her, which involved everything from blowtorches to firearms, actress Rashida Jones emerged to hype the show’s third season debut. She had nary a bullet wound, no hypothermia and pretty decent hair. Imagine that.

These stunts are just two recent examples of the lengths to which television networks will go to grab viewers’ attention, creating original short stories, parody videos and pieces of quirky content and distributing them across linear and digital channels to pique interest and drive tune-in.

It’s not just the golden age of TV we’re living in; it’s the golden age of TV promotion.

In fact, there’s probably more pressure on marketing than ever before, given splintered audiences and fierce competition. Networks and their promo shops, often drawing in advertiser partners, are going far beyond the traditional 30-second spot to create inventive, compelling, Easter egg-filled content that’s meant to share with friends and spark conversations.

“It’s a seismic change because we’re moving away from a time-honored format. That one hero spot is a much lower priority these days,” said Brad Roth, principal at Stun, which created the Angie Tribeca gag. “Campaigns need a range of content to run across various platforms.”

That’s why AMC launched faux ads for Los Pollos Hermanos, a fictional fast-food chain in Better Call Saul run by series arch-villain Gus Fring. The cable net also opened pop-up restaurants in several markets and worked with Acura on animated “training videos,” webisodes and interactive games tied to the prestige Breaking Bad prequel.

Meanwhile, Netflix teased its new superhero mash-up, The Defenders, with “surveillance footage” of four Marvel characters stuck in an elevator, while E! made mock offers of marriage for money to Bachelor contestants via social media videos to promote its new scripted hit, The Arrangement.

As radical as they may appear, these types of promos can be invaluable when it comes to reaching fickle audiences. These days, viewers aren’t just elusive, they’re “actively trying to get away from any kind of advertising,” said Dan Riess, evp, content partnerships and co-head of Turner Ignite, which launched some 300 marketer-backed content programs last year for Conan, Adult Swim and other series. “I’ve never seen the entire industry en masse doing so much original content” to boost their entertainment offerings, he added.

TruTV’s Impractical Jokers, a show revolving around four friends who challenge each other to ridiculous dares in public, used some “over-the-top production tactics” like lens flares, extreme close-ups and slow motion to distance its new promo spots from conventional ads, said Mark Feldstein, principal at Stun.

“We treat the guys in this epic way, like they’re professional athletes,” he explained. “And it’s a meta approach to a commercial because they actually refer to it as a commercial.” The black-and-white fake-serious spots, on air and social media, do double duty for sponsor Mountain Dew and the show’s sixth season.

Creatively speaking, the current environment is giving promo execs a broader playing field on which they can tell unique stories and tailor content to the specific media. The length of the pieces can vary, as can format, based on distribution.

“TV promos used to be just that—promos on TV,” said Tim Staples, CEO of Shareability, whose team created a four-minute spoken-word video with rapper-artist Prince Ea for Fox’s Shots Fired. “Now they live or die based on Facebook, YouTube and Snapchat.”

With seemingly everyone in on the trend—and networks more willing than ever to take creative risks to snag eyeballs—there may soon be a glut of original promo content. And not all of it can hit its target.

Some promos “will catch lightning in a bottle, others will fail spectacularly,” Staples said, “but the majority will suffer the most demoralizing defeat of the digital age: complete silence.”

This story first appeared in the May 15, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@TLStanleyLA T.L. Stanley is a senior editor at Adweek, where she specializes in consumer trends, cannabis marketing, meat alternatives, pop culture, challenger brands and creativity.