At a time when many established television networks have been cutting back on their publicity and promotion efforts it is somewhat remarkable to watch one of them actually move in the opposite direction. That's what Syfy has done since 2007 with its annual Digital Press Tours, in which it brings executives and talent from its series together with dedicated bloggers, tweeters and Web writers for a day of press conferences and other activities. It does so in addition to (rather than in place of) its twice yearly presentations at Television Critics Association tours and its massive presence at the San Diego Comic-Con (the highlight of which remains the must-attend party it throws with Entertainment Weekly).
This year's digital tour took place earlier this week at the Lowe's Portofino Bay Hotel at Universal Orlando and was bracketed by activities that fueled further interest from the digerati: An opening night dinner (which included a surprise guest appearance by NBC Universal President and Chief Executive Officer Jeff Zucker) followed by a tour of Universal's 20th Annual Halloween Horror Nights (an area featuring eight haunted houses populated by hundreds of actors portraying zombies and ghouls) and a private closing night event at the sensational new theme park The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. (The locations of Syfy's digital press tours always compliment the network's genre base. For example, the 2008 tour took place at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado, the legendarily "haunted" hotel that was the inspiration for Stephen King's The Shining, and it concluded with an official ghost hunt led by Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson of Ghost Hunters.)
Twitter had yet to explode four years ago when Syfy produced its first digital tour, but it largely powered this week's event, as the several dozen writers in attendance were actively encouraged to tweet like mad throughout the day. Facebook postings and YouTube uploads were also welcomed and Foursquare venues were established for the tour itself and each of its panels. In a sign of how the times are changing, digital photography and video recording were permitted before, during and after each session. Executives and talent alike were totally on board with this approach, which is hardly the case at many other press events (including most sessions at TCA tours). It was not at all uncommon to see Syfy talent hanging out on site after their sessions ended, sitting for video and audio interviews and posing for pictures. Once upon a time that material would have been held until a later time and uploaded onto Web sites, but most of it now is instantly tweeted - and, more importantly, competitively re-tweeted. The digerati were told that the writer whose tweets generated the most re-tweeting after each press conference would win a (very modest) prize.
Watching the digital press tour in action reminded me of what I see every year after panels at Comic-Con, where hundreds (if not thousands) of fans hurriedly tweet and upload comments, pictures and videos obtained during sessions. It is a massive information output operating totally outside of traditional journalism and communication structures. But Syfy's digital press tour represents a hybrid of the old and the new, with an organized foundation that allows access only to credentialed attendees and directly feeds their digital output in a very informal but productive manner. Incidentally, Syfy refers to the ever-expanding group of bloggers and others that attend these tours as the Syfy Digital Network.
An event that generates thousands of tweets quoting what television personalities have to say about their shows (or themselves) has its place, but Syfy wisely added weight to the tour by integrating some breaking news into the day. For example, during a panel for Syfy Ventures (the network's portfolio of businesses and joint ventures) featuring Syfy President Dave Howe; Syfy Executive Vice President, Original Content and Universal Cable Productions Co-Head, Original Content Mark Stern; Syfy Digital Senior Vice President and General Manager Craig Engler; and Syfy Ventures Senior Vice President Alan Seiffert, in which they outlined plans to expand Syfy into a "global lifestyle brand" and find partnerships that will take Syfy beyond television, Seiffert announced that the network had just closed a deal with female genre merchandise company Her Universe to create a branded line of apparel and accessories under the Syfy Gear banner. Her Universe founder Ashley Eckstein was on hand to provide further information, the details of which seemed to generate a fresh frenzy of twittering in the room.
The digital press tour also featured the first press conferences for the network's upcoming series Being Human -- an adaptation of the BBC drama about a vampire, a werewolf and a ghost -- and Marcel's Quantum Kitchen, a reality series starring Top Chef season two runner-up Marcel Vigneron, a young chef who specializes in highly unusual scientific methods of preparing food. (Liquid nitrogen sometimes plays a key role.) If Vigneron's series (which debuts in February 2011) is as entertaining as his demonstration of how he pulls together certain dishes it will likely find an audience even though Syfy isn't a destination for cooking show enthusiasts. Being Human, on the other hand, should easily fit right into Syfy's established mix of scripted genre programming when it premieres in January 2011. The chemistry between by the three leads (Sam Witwer, Meaghan Rath and Sam Huntington) during their panel was extraordinary. If that comes through in the series itself Human will surely be the network's next breakout hit.
Syfy's digital tour also featured panels for the ongoing series Caprica, Sanctuary, Destination Truth and Fact or Faked: Paranormal Files, along with upcoming one-shot holiday episodes of Eureka and Warehouse 13 (both scheduled for December 7) and the new reality series Hollywood Treasure, which stars Joe Maddalena, the world's leading auctioneer of original movie, television and pop culture collectibles. (It premieres October 27.) Kofi Kingston and Beth Phoenix, two wrestlers from World Wrestling Entertainment, were also on hand to discuss the recent genre-defying move of WWE Friday Night Smackdown to Syfy.
Unfortunately there were no cast members on hand from any of the network's Ghost Hunters series. But in every other way Syfy's digital press tour was a one-day crash course that showcased where the network is at and where it is going, smartly packaged and presented for maximum digital exposure. Syfy will surely expand on this in the years to come, and it will come as no surprise if other networks follow suit. In fact, one can only wonder what they're waiting for. Why not take full advantage of today's communications technology in a way that complements but does not compromise other areas of publicity and promotion?