TV’s Brave Step Into the Future

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Published April 30, 2009

 

If you watched Lost last night (and didn’t fast-forward through the commercials), you might’ve noticed a ghostly image periodically flickering in the corner of the screen between ads, followed by the words: “What did you see?” The images—a coffin, a wedding, a surfer, a school, and an ultrasound-didn’t stay up for more than a second, and ABC never indicated what any of them were supposed to mean, but they served a very specific purpose.

ABC is developing a new series called Flash Forward, based on a Robert J. Sawyer science-fiction novel about a mysterious event that causes everyone in the world to lose consciousness for a few minutes and experience moments from their future. If all goes according to plan, ABC will premiere Flash Forward in 2010, as a companion series to Lost, in hopes that some of that rabid Lost fanbase will transfer their allegiances when their favorite show completes its run. At the moment, Flash Forward doesn’t even have a pilot episode in the can, and ABC has yet to order more than a pilot. The network is trying to create a viral awareness of a show they’re not even 100% sure they’re going to put on the air.

Welcome to TV promotion in the 21st century. It used to be fairly easy for major television networks to make people aware of their upcoming shows. All they had to do was run commercials during their current shows. But that was when the nets could count on a captive audience, spending its primetime hours switching between one of the four or five channels available. Now, between cable, the internet, videogames, and countless other diversions, the odds that potential viewers would just happen to be watching ABC while a commercial for a new show is airing are slim. The odds those viewers wouldn’t be fast-forwarding through that commercial are even slimmer. So the networks are getting cleverer, attempting odd stunts that they hope will get people talking.

Fox will attempt something similar in a couple of weeks. Following the May 19 installment of their runaway hit show American Idol, Fox will air the pilot episode for Glee, a high-school-set musical comedy series from Nip/Tuck creator Ryan Murphy. As for the second episode? Well, that won’t air until this fall. Fox is hoping that people will tune into Glee on one of the few nights they can guarantee a huge lead-in, and that those people will return for more Glee in a couple of months, when the network won’t have Idol to lean on.

Will these stunts work? It’ll depend on the product. Glee is a sharp, sweet show, perfectly pitched to audiences who are outgrowing High School Musical but still enjoy singing and dancing. Fox is probably doing the right thing in giving it as a big a promotional push as they can muster. But with Flash Forward, ABC may be putting the cart before the horse. If only the network brass could close their eyes and skip ahead a year or two, they’d know for sure.