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ABC’s ‘Don’t Trust the B—-‘ becomes TV’s latest online-first success

The Internet is supposed to be cannibalizing traditional TV viewership, not offering marketing support for its premieres.

But the latter seems to be happening this television season. On Wednesday night, new ABC comedy Don’t Trust the B—- in Apt. 23 became the latest new show to seemingly benefit from an emerging strategy in which shows debut online before their network premiere. Wednesday’s 9:30 p.m. performance of the new James Van Der Beek comedy–which was posted on Hulu nine days earlier–was more workmanlike than spectacular, with the show holding nearly 70 percent of the audience of the hit sitcom that preceded it, Modern Family.

How much of Don’t Trust the B‘s ratings performance came from online buzz-building is nearly impossible to say. But it looks like the strategy of establishing word-of-mouth for a show via online sampling could become standard practice for the broadcast networks going forward.

The strategy has been popular on cable for several years, starting around 2008 when ABC Family made the season-three premiere of youth drama Lincoln Heights available on one-time Comcast video site

But it’s just been this year that the Big Four broadcast networks have embraced the concept. And by and large, it’s hard to say it’s taken viewership away from traditional television, starting last fall when Fox let viewers sample its new Zooey Deschanel comedy, The New Girl  on platforms including the actress’ very own site weeks before its Sept. 20 premiere.

Perennially the No. 1 network in broadcast TV’s most sought-after demographic–adults 18-49–Fox’s major flaw had been that it had long struggled to launch new sitcoms. But New Girl got out of the gate strong, averaging more than 10 million viewers, and it never looked back.

New Girl‘s success seems to have spurred a trend.

NBC preceded the Feb. 6 debut of its highly anticipated Broadway-themed drama Smash by making the show available starting Jan. 16 on iTunes, Amazon, Xbox Live, PlayStation, Samsung MediaHub and Vudu. The show has struggled to live up to expectations, but it’s premiere was quite strong, with 11.5 million viewers tuning in.

Meanwhile, among pay cable networks like Showtime, such pre-sampling is already standard practice. For example, prior to their season premieres Sunday, Showtime made “dramedies” The Big C and Nurse Jackie, as well as period drama The Borgias, available for free streaming on platforms including YouTube and  iTunes. Season premiere ratings results  were mixed, with Eddie Falco series Nurse Jackie up 7 percent over its last season premiere with 653,000 viewers upon its initial run, but Big C and Borgias both down season-over-season.

Earlier in the season, however, Showtime garnered its best drama premiere ratings in eight years when it let viewers sample in advance the Claire Danes series Homeland. More than a million viewers tuned in, which is big in Showtime’s subscriber-supported universe.

Not only is such sampling intended to build buzz for the show, but it can also entice non-subscribers — a fact that hasn’t escaped pay-cable rival HBO.

On Thursday, the network announced that its newest series, the Sex and the City-esque Girls and Julia Louis-Dreyfus dramedy Veep, will also get the treatment. However, free access on platforms including YouTube will not be made available until after these shows’ respective April 15 and April 22 premieres.

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