May 26, 2011

The Virtues of Watching 'Glee' and 'American Idol' on the Big Screen

by J. Max Robins

On Tuesday night, here at The Paley Center for Media, a boisterous cross-generation crowd of American Idol and Glee fanatics filled the Frank A. Bennack Jr. Theater to watch season finale episodes of these two iconic shows. Sitting in the audience with my three teenage kids, all avowed Gleeks (and one longtime Idol fan), I was struck by how well the intimate medium of TV translates to the big screen.

What a sense of community and fun there was in that auditorium. During commercial breaks, TV Guide Editor-in-Chief Debra Birnbaum invited people on stage for Karaoke. There were trivia contests and swag distributed. The crowd had a ball.

The Paley Center does lots of these screening parties, and after attending Tuesday's Idol/Glee double bill, I had to wonder why the networks aren't pushing big event TV on the big screen to their core audiences more often. Communal TV viewing is a rich experience that doesn't have to be the sole province of beer-soaked bars, where sports fans hoot and holler at gargantuan HD flat-screens. Great narrative series and competition shows have a whole new dimension on a theatrical screen in a group-viewing environment.

HBO knows this and has long used cinematic "influencer" screenings for critics and industry swells as an effective marketing tool. There's something really thrilling about hearing the theme music to True Blood or Entourage pound out on the sound system in a packed Radio City Music Hall or Ziegfeld Theater or any cineplex in any town. I can't think of a better way to cement the bonds among your most ardent fans by bringing them together under one roof.

Programmers are more challenged than ever to cut through all the competition out there--at last week's upfronts, the broadcast networks introduced more than 40 new series. And that's on top of the dozens of shows on the cable slates unveiled in recent weeks. One way networks can boost their new shows is to turn series premieres into events outside the home that bring a community together to sample what's new. And do the same with returning favorites, too. The Paley Center and other venues already do this in New York and Los Angeles, but networks should be going to the 20 biggest markets and university towns. Make talent part of the road show, either live or via telepresence.

Meanwhile, the advertisers that foot the bill for all this programming want more engagement. They love seeing those spikes in Twitter mentions and check-in platforms during event programs like the Emmys and the Oscars (for more on that, check out the presentation Twitter's Chloe Sladden gave last month at the Paley Center in L.A.). Imagine how much more engaged those uber-fans could be if you got them all together in the real world, not just the virtual one.

Back in TV's Paleolithic Age, the 1970s, the legendary NBC scheduling whiz and TV theorist Paul Klein promoted the idea that network needed to be in the event-TV business if they wanted to stand out. Splashy mini-series, with great production values and marquee names, were the way to cut through the clutter. That was in an era when there were only three major networks--no in-home recording devices, no YouTube, Netflix or Hulu.

Decades later, big-event TV is still an important tool in the programmer's arsenal. Communal viewing can turn most any program into a real event.

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