Helping Viewers Play Catch-Up

Clip shows are key to building audience for ABC hits

Keeping up with the endless intricacies of ABC’s smash hit Lost is a tall order, even for the most devoted fans. But while the heavily serialized plotline has made the mysterious island a destination for viewers, it also has marooned newcomers who might feel it’s too late to join the show’s huge following.

To combat that, ABC airs hour-long clip shows, the latest of which is slated to run Jan. 11 at 8 p.m., leading into the first new episode of 2006. Designed for and marketed to those who are coming late to the party, ABC has also used the strategy for Desperate Housewives and was scheduled to run its first clip show for Grey’s Anatomy over the weekend.

But it is not the program producers who do the heavy lifting on these highlight shows; rather, it is outside agencies brought in by ABC’s marketing department.

And while Los Angeles-based Lynne Lussier Productions has handled the Desperate shows, ABC has gone to a small Minneapolis firm called Met/Hodder to bring new viewers to Lost and Grey’s (see sidebar). Thanks to the firm’s cheaper rates and Midwestern mentality, it is a relationship that has become increasingly valuable to ABC.

Since Lost’s serialized nature probably won’t play well in syndication, Touchstone and ABC want to maximize its audience right now, to drive ratings, DVDs and downloads on iTunes. “We look at these [clips shows] as marketing tools to bring new audiences in, and we will promote them that way,” says ABC Senior VP of Marketing Mike Benson.

But the clip shows have also performed relatively well for ABC, out-rating repeats while doing so at far less than the price of an original episode. The Lost clip shows, for instance, have averaged a 5.4 rating in the 18-49 demo, between the 3.4 average for a repeat and the 7.4 average for a new episode. The clip shows cost around half the $2 million-plus of a new episode.

ABC likes the fact that Met/Hodder is often 25%-50% cheaper than production companies in Los Angeles, but ABC’s Benson maintains that cost is not the only motivation. “We are not just looking for a way to get a cheaper episode done,” he says. “We are trying to drive sampling.”

So with producers busy pumping out 23 episodes in a season, ABC decided to go outside for these shows. For Lost and now Grey’s, Benson tapped Kent Hodder, whom he’d worked with at WCCO Minneapolis. Hodder’s company, Met/Hodder, had already been doing promotional work for the network, including Who Wants To Be a Millionaire promos about past winners and half-hour fall-preview specials for affiliates.

Six People Per Show

But the catch-up shows were an entirely different animal, especially with a program as complex as Lost. Hodder puts a minimum of six dedicated people on a show and tracks Lost’s numerous storylines with “thousands of Post-it notes.” The producers tell them what will happen in the next three new episodes, and Met/Hodder reverse-engineers the special from that point.

And while Met/Hodder and the producers have it down pat now, their first attempt did not go so well. When the firm came back with the initial Lost clip- show effort, it was not received well by the producers, who thought it was, among other things, too dark.

“Inevitably, it was their baby, and they freaked,” Hodder remembers.

ABC’s Benson insists it wasn’t that bad: “The producers all said it wasn’t [Met/Hodder’s] fault. It was tough to pull off the first time.”

So with eight days until air, Met/Hodder completely redid the show with five edit suites working around the clock. The show was finally delivered to New York just hours before it aired nationally.

“That was a little nerve-racking,” Hodder says. “I was just hoping ABC had something cued up to run in case the special didn’t come through.”

It did indeed air, and ABC continues to use Met/Hodder not only for clip shows but for other initiatives, including online work for Lost and upcoming projects for Invasion.

ABC’s Benson likes the firm’s fresh perspective. “They are not caught up in what’s really going on in Hollywood,” he says, “so there is a mainstream sensibility they bring to the party that I really appreciate.”