Premium Cable Networks Give It Away for Free

Premium cable networks faced with the marketing challenge of driving viewers to their original programming are getting inventive with digital promotions. Both HBO and Showtime have offered free online episodes of shows ahead of their series premiers in a bid to drive subscriptions.

To goose its upcoming premier of “United States of Tara,” airing January 18, Showtime made the full first episode available for online viewing free. The network estimates the episode has the potential to reach 170 million users on TV.com, Yahoo, YouTube, Netflix, and other entertainment portals. It was also distributed on social networks Facebook and Bebo, and on blogs including Gawker and Pink is the New Blog. Mobile and video-on-demand channels were also included.

It was a bold move for Showtime to pre-release its new series about a mother with multiple personalities for free. The model, however, had already worked for HBO’s “Flight of the Conchords.”

Before its first season, Conchords gained considerable buzz when HBO agency Deep Focus offered the premier online for free — at first exclusively on MySpace. The site was chosen partly to reach existing fans of New Zealand comedy duo and series stars Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie, according to Deep Focus CEO Ian Schafer.

The episode was up on MySpace one month prior to its debut on HBO. After the first week it was rolled out on iTunes, YouTube and other Web sites. The aggregate number of pre-premier streams and downloads for episode one was about a half a million.

As the show’s sophomore season approaches, Deep Focus is repeating the tactic. HBO partnered with Funny or Die to premier the show on Wednesday December 17 through Sunday December 21, a month before the television debut. Users can embed episodes on blogs, Web sites, and social network profiles.

Along with the premier episode on the Web, HBO and Deep Focus launched a Lip Dub Video Fansterpiece contest where fans of the series are asked to post videos to YouTube or Funny or Die of themselves lip synching to the song “Hiphopopotamus vs. Rhymenoceros” from the first season.

The contest will continue until the season begins on January 18. A winning video will air after an episode on HBO. “There are people out there that have such an intimate knowledge of the show that they can lip sync the song and put videos out there,” said Schafer.

At press time there were about 50 approved videos that met the requirements and sustained three minutes of airtime. The rest didn’t comply with rules. Deep Focus has asked many of the content creators to resubmit their videos. Of those that did comply with the contest rules, “most of the videos have had thousands of views,” said Schafer.

There’s also a Facebook Connect link on the FlightLipDub Web site. “With a couple of clicks it can show that you have interacted with the Lip Dub experience,” Schafer said. “We want to take advantage that the content exists.”

As for views of the full episode, HBO reports it is currently at 1.5 million streams and downloads as of mid-week. That includes the exclusive availability on Funny or Die and expanded availability on YouTube, iTunes, HBO.com, and other sites.

Deep Focus is also busy with marketing campaigns for other HBO series. The third season of “Big Love” also premiers on January 18. The agency set up an anonymous Twitter feed at Twitter.com/Webofsecrets. The account consists of confessions from viewers and random Internet users, 140 characters at a time. Only a few of the tweets reflect the show’s theme of bigamy.

“It’s an interesting streaming display of people’s confessions, quite disturbing actually,” said Christian Borges, VP of social media communications and publicity at Deep Focus. “It ties into the overall theme of the show that everybody has something to hide.”

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