As the promotional and marketing campaigns for the new fall shows begin to ramp up, are you starting to feel like you can’t possibly wait another month to watch that new series you’re excited about? In many cases, you no longer have to.
While viewers are taking longer than ever to watch TV shows, when it comes to new series, networks don’t have the luxury of waiting several days or weeks for audiences to sample them and decide whether or not they want to see more. So they’re adopting a new tactic: releasing the premiere episodes online days, weeks, and now even months before their actual TV premieres.
In the past week alone, three different broadcast networks have placed the full premieres of some new shows online, in two cases more than a month in advance of their airdates. NBC’s romantic comedy A to Z (which premieres Oct. 2), ABC’s My Fair Lady update Selfie (due to premiere Sept. 30), and most recently, Fox’s high school/hospital drama Red Band Society (coming on TV Sept. 17) have all been posted on Hulu and their network’s respective websites (though Red Band Society‘s preview will only be available online through Aug. 26). And that will only be the beginning: in the coming days and weeks, expect several more fall pilots, if not almost all of them, to debut online in advance of their official premieres.
In fact, early online premieres—legal ones, not leaks—happen so regularly now that they have become the norm, rather than the exception. Starz’s early preview of Outlander drew nearly 1 million viewers, while Showtime’s Penny Dreadful, AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire and ABC’s Mixology were among the new shows this year that premiered online. Disney Channel now routinely debuts almost all of its shows online—including Boy Meets World, Phineas and Ferb: Star Wars and the upcoming Star Wars Rebels—via its official WATCH Disney streaming app.
Broadcast networks insist that they now program year-round (and indeed, have been doing just that), but almost all of their biggest shows still debut during the same two-week period in late September and early October. This makes it especially brutal for new shows to find an audience, so the online premieres gives viewers an early opportunity to sample them and, the networks hope, get hooked and start spreading the word before the shows enter the TV equivalent of Thunderdome.
While online premieres potentially help networks get a leg up on their competition, these earlier-than-ever debuts seem to be pushing their luck: if viewers like, say, A to Z, it’s far too early for them to set their DVRs to record the episodes, and six weeks from now, when the show actually premieres, that initial interest might have already faded from memory.
But that’s a risk that the networks are willing to take. Furthermore, these early premieres are also a potential boon for Hulu, which is jointly owned by NBC, Fox and ABC’s parent companies, and continues to fight for eyeballs (one of the reasons it inked its big South Park deal in July) in its streaming race with Netflix and Amazon.