I sometimes think the folks at Fox are working in an alternate reality like the one on Lost. I mean that in a good way.
Case in point: Their groundbreaking treatment of Glee, a modest performer last fall that has been lovingly and meticulously nurtured into a genuine, wholly unique pop-culture phenomenon the likes of which hasn't sprung from the sea of scripted broadcast entertainment since, well, Lost. Give the industry another year; by then we'll be hip-deep in Glee clones, as we have been since 2006 with shows inspired by ABC's lunatic adventure-drama. (Like all those Lost wannabes, I fear the Glones will be pretty lousy, too.)
Fox set the stage for the convention-busting success of Glee last May, when it ran the series' first episode after the final competition between Adam Lambert and Kris Allen on Season 8 of American Idol - four months before its official 2009-10 season premiere. Ratings that night weren't as spectacular as Fox executives or the many gleeks among the nation's television critics had hoped, but they were strong enough to generate big buzz and kick off an unprecedented wave of viewer-driven viral promotion over the summer.
Looking back, the fact that Fox "allowed" the world to see the first episode of their bouncy new baby that far in advance marked a dramatic turnaround from the way network programmers and schedulers had always operated. Historically, nobody other than advertisers and journalists had been allowed such early exposure. I can't help but wonder: Has the industry learned anything from the unique birth and subsequent growth of Glee? Specifically, will any of the broadcasters run the premiere episode of a new 2010-11 series next month as the 2009-10 season draws to a close and initiate a summer surge of advance publicity? We now know that there is no discernible downside to a spring sneak of a new fall series - assuming said series doesn't suck.
That single exposure to Glee last spring -- in tandem with free downloads on iTunes and other online promotions, all kinds of regional events and a standing room only screening of its second episode in July at Comic-Con -- had millions of young people salivating for its debut last fall. Even the media was mad for it -- this despite the fact that networks and studios had shied away from developing scripted series with music since the dual debacle back in 1990 of NBC's horrible Hull High and ABC's legendarily awful Cop Rock.
Fox's out of the box promotion of Glee didn't slow down after its debut last fall. In fact, it shifted into higher gear with the release of two CDs filled with songs from the show, a DVD of the fall episodes that dropped immediately after Glee's midseason finale and an innovative online effort to cast three new roles for next season via MySpace (myspace.com/gleeauditions). Never mind that the show's primary storyline - the multi-pronged pregnancy mess - was Grade-C soap opera. All of this cross-media marketing and merchandising focused on the strengths of the Glee experience and made it an outsize success despite its weaknesses.
Glee's midseason finale was followed by a four-month hiatus, the likes of which generally destroys any momentum a new fall series had generated, especially one with continuing storylines like this season's struggling ABC freshmen FlashForward and V. They were recently absent almost as long as Glee and suffered dearly for it. But for Glee, absence made hearts grow fonder, and it came roaring back on April 13 bigger, better and with higher ratings than before. (Happily, the pregnancy story has been streamlined and marginalized.) Not wasting a moment, the Glee machine last week released a special seven-song CD featuring the tunes from its Madonna tribute episode and posted Jane Lynch's riotous rendition of Vogue on Hulu. The series' upcoming summer break will undoubtedly prove similarly beneficial, with a couple of fresh CDs and another DVD release to keep the love alive, not to mention a multi-city concert tour by cast members.
One might argue that Glee is so easy to promote because of its music, and that there would be a lot less to work with if it were simply a comedy about high school misfits. That may be true, but the Internet, digital media and social networking have made viral marketing a breeze - if viral marketers know what they are doing and if they have something special to work with. Think back to 1999 and the brilliance of the online promotional campaign for the movie The Blair Witch Project, which was as big as Glee during its theatrical run without benefit of musical support -- or Facebook as we know it now, or Twitter. In hindsight, the mystery of the Witch was custom made for the marketing and promotional platforms of its time. So, too, is the music and merriment of Glee.
This column was originallypublished in the MediaBizBloggers section at JackMyers.com.