Only Fox could manage to finish first in the broadcast network ratings for four straight seasons and still play the underdog card.
For Joe Earley, Fox's executive VP of marketing and communications, the challenge is to continue branding the network as an edgy outsider and more than just American Idol. Since last August, when he was tapped to merge the marketing and communications departments, Earley has overseen highly acclaimed rollouts such as the launch of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Last month, he staged a parade of a dozen cows on the streets of New York City to stir up buzz for Fox's new fall series Fringe.
At last week's Promax/BDA conference, B&C and Multichannel News honored Earley with a 2008 BrandBuilder Award. B&C spoke with Earley afterward about keeping Fox edgy, reminding viewers about Idol and his summer plans for Fringe. (For a video Q&A with Earley, click here.)
It's been more than 20 years since Fox began as the upstart network. How do you maintain that “bad boy” image, especially when you were the No. 1 network last season?
What we do is we look for what is “Fox-like” about each show. We're using internally a phrase, it's “so Fox.” So, what is “so Fox” about House is that he's clearly a unique individual. You would never have a character who's addicted to pain pills on CBS. American Idol: Simon is clearly “so Fox,” his relationship with Paula, Ryan's role on the show. So what we do is figure out what is unique about the show, how does that fit into the Fox brand, and then we make sure that we're playing that up to reinforce what the network brand is via the shows—because you can't do it the other way around.
No one seriously thinks Idol's in trouble, but there was some viewer fall-off early in the last season. How do you deal with that from a promotional standpoint?
Every year that a show is on a network, usually its [promotional] budget goes down. With Idol, we don't take anything for granted, so whatever we've done before, we're going to do it better, we're going to do it bigger. What we do is meet with the producers to see what they are doing for the show and then we will try to maximize all that. But we're basically just going to keep it out there and make sure people remember what's at stake—that this is the only competition where they can actually choose the next huge superstar.
Given the viewer fall-off from the writers' strike, how are you planning to bring audiences back for the fall?
It was a big challenge to come back from the strike. As we saw, everyone was down, even Idol was down. We basically had to re-launch shows in the spring, when HUTS [Homes Using Television] were down, and without the budgets that we have in the fall. What we are hoping is that over the summer, because we do very well with Hell's Kitchen and So You Think You Can Dance, we are going to use those platforms to get people started for the fall. Fringe, which doesn't come on until Sept. 9, we started running promos in the Idol finale in May, and we are continuing to do that all summer long.
What are you planning for Fringe? Can we expect another livestock parade?
We definitely have a few more stunts planned. I don't want to talk about that right now, but they are in the plan. Fringe is going to be a very healthy campaign. When you have material like that, and you're working with people such as J.J. Abrams, Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, and bringing together the worlds of Lost and Transformers, I think that's a very strong consumer message. The pilot delivers, the cast is amazing, it's a perfect storm, so we want to make sure we do our part to give it every chance to succeed.
Given that association with Lost—and the fact that several heavily-serialized dramas that launched in its wake struggled to grab viewers—do you have a plan for keeping viewers engaged with Fringe or bringing them back if they lose interest?
One of the messages we’ll be trying to convey about Fringe is that it isn’t extremely serialized. It is a procedural at heart. Then you add on the sci-fi elements. And then there is a familial aspect because two thirds of our main characters are a father and a son, and then we also have a relationship formed with the main character as well. It’s a really broad show and has many, many access points. So our jobs as marketers is to make sure people don’t say it is only sci-fi and extremely serialized. People will want to put it in the Lost category; I’m happy that they do that from a creative and qualitative standpoint, but we want to make sure they realize they are stand-alone episodes. And ther people want to compare it to the X-Files; it’s probably the better comparison in that most X-Files episodes were stand-alone. However, you had an ongoing conspiracy theory that would come in arcs, and that’s more how Fringe would work.