To casual observers, it might not be a big surprise that a new comedy led by Zooey Deschanel would be a hit. And yet, before the fall TV season began, Fox (s NWS) took what seemed like a considerable risk by making its new show New Girl available to viewers for free online, all in the hopes of creating some buzz for the show. But that bet appears to have paid off, as New Girl has seen pretty good ratings in its first two weeks, and today became the first new show to receive a full-season pickup.
Last week, when New Girl debuted with a 4.8 rating in the adult 18-49 demographic and 10.3 million viewers overall, some thought that the showing was a bit of a fluke. The show even outdid Fox lead-in Glee, which has been one of the top-rated scripted series on the network over the last two years.
In its second week, New Girl held strong and remained the top show for the night, with a 4.4 rating and 9.3 million viewers. That led Fox to pick the show up for the full season, committing to an additional 11 episodes to round out a full 24 episodes.
While many will credit the affable Deschanel with the success of the show, there was a considerable marketing push behind New Girl, much of which occurred through digital distribution and social media. Weeks ago, I received a Klout perk inviting me to watch the pilot episode, as I was apparently deemed to be an influencer in the realm of TV and media. (For what it’s worth, I didn’t like the show and contributed very little positive sentiment.) A few weeks before the season began, Fox made full-length episodes of New Girl widely available to anyone and everyone on various online distribution outlets, such as Apple’s iTunes, (s aapl) Hulu, Fox.com, cable video-on-demand and Hello Giggles, a blog of Deschanel fans.
The wide distribution before the show run had some worried that early online viewership would eat into the pilot episode’s broadcast ratings. Fox head of marketing Joe Earley told Deadline Hollywood last week that the network expected the free promotion to depress the show’s opening just a few days after it began:
“The numbers started climbing and climbing at a much higher rate,” Earley said. “When we hit a million views, I started to become nervous; when we hit 2 million, I started to break out in a cold sweat. Over 2 million viewers had consumed this show before it even premiered!”
Instead, just the opposite happened: Powered by positive word-of-mouth, more viewers tuned into the live broadcast than Fox expected. Response on social media, particularly positive reviews on Facebook and Twitter, led many to tune in for the pilot.
Time and again, we’ve seen that online viewing is not only largely complementary to broadcast airing of shows, but that it can help build buzz for series — especially those entering new seasons. Putting past seasons of critically acclaimed series online helps to let users catch up on previous seasons and build anticipation for new episodes.
Some networks have caught on to this trend and are leveraging online distribution channels to drive viewership for shows on-air. Look at Mad Men or Breaking Bad, which are now fully available on Netflix, (s NFLX) or the success of Lost‘s final season, after its back episodes were made available online. Of course, not everyone agrees: Showtime, (s CBS) for instance, pulled episodes of its shows still on the air from Netflix.
Nevertheless, based on the early success of New Girl, we’re likely to see more networks experimenting with sneak previews and early digital distribution as one way to leverage social channels and make viewers aware of new shows before future TV seasons begin.