It's a needle-in-a-haystack world for new TV shows, particularly when they're on cable. That's why so many networks put pilot episodes online well in advance of the series premiere. Still, the Viacom-owned cable network Spike seems to be going one important step beyond its peers in its efforts to build an audience. Not only is it making the first episode of the new series "Factory" available in advance on its website and through downloadable video stores, it's also trying to spread it through Limewire and other file-sharing networks. Without DRM, or seemingly any form of copy protection.
Spike is working with Jun Group, a firm that specializes in promoting media through p2p networks. Mitchell Reichgut, a principal in Jun Group, acknowledged that other TV programmers had used p2p technology to distribute shows (witness the broad support for Joost, or NBC's work with Pando Networks). But those distributions "have taken place in enclosed, rights-protected `fish bowls,'" Richgut said in an e-mail, while "Spike is swimming in the `ocean' - open P2P networks - where Spike's viewers regularly seek out the latest and greatest new content." In other words, Spike isn't using p2p technology to cut its distribution costs. It's doing it to chase viewers.
Todd Ames, a marketing vice president at Spike, said in an interview that putting the show on file-sharing networks was an acknowledgment of "what people are really doing, and the way consumers are really looking for content." Using DRM, he said, would be self-defeating. "I don’t think there’s a marketer out there who hasn’t been told, `Get me that viral thing.' And `get me that viral thing' when it’s handcuffed and ball-and-chained is pretty difficult."
It's not something he'd do for just any show, but it made sense for "Factory," a semi-scripted comedy about four working-class buddies (it aspires to be a blue collar version of "The Office" or "Entourage."). "There is no better marketing tool for the show than the show itself, but you’ve got to be seen," he said. "I’m dealing with something that has no real celebrity, and has never been seen before.... We’re trying for a bit of a ubiquity here, to go where the people are."
Still, those file-sharing networks are hotbeds of TV piracy, so Spike's approach is more of a toe-dip than a cannonball. You won't see any TV commercials on Spike touting the availability of "Factory" on Limewire. (All the same, Richgut expects more than 1 million downloads of the pilot. Jun Group's secret sauce is its ability to use metadata and other techniques to help the files it promotes bubble to the surface in p2p searches.) Nor does Spike plan to make later episodes available through file-sharing networks, although it expects bootleg versions to wind up there anyway. "My goal is not website traffic," Ames said. "It's really about driving tune-in for the television network."
Of course, if Spike could guarantee an additional million views of "Factory" through p2p, it might make sense to distribute the whole series that way -- with commercials, that is. But Ames said the medium still has to prove its ability to deliver individual shows to the kinds of mass audiences they can reach on cable. The Spike network is available in 96 million cable and satellite homes, after all. The online video business isn't there yet.
"Factory," which has been available online since Tuesday, premieres June 29. Here's a taste of the show, courtesy of the Spike website: