SciFi, Battlestar Galactica and building relationships with bloggers
(warning, long post)
A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away, I interviewed Michael Hinman of SyFy Portal about SciFi Network’s successful digital press tour and promised a follow-up with comments from the PR agency that arranged the event about why the network did the press tour and what it hoped to achieve.
Well, time flies. I did do the interview with Courtney White from SciFi’s agency New Media Strategies. I also chatted briefly with the TV Addict, Daniel Malen, another one of the online journalists who attended the Vancouver event, about his impressions of the tour and his relationship with the network.
But other things intervened. The post, which seemed pretty evergreen, kept getting pushed off the calendar.
And then about a week ago, actor Jamie Bamber (Apollo on Battlestar Galactica) told an audience at Dragon*Con that SciFi was considering splitting the upcoming fourth and final season of Battlestar into what effectively would be two mini-seasons of 10 episodes each separated by as much as a year. According to convention reports, he was less than complimentary about the possibility. His statements were backed up by Aaron Douglas (Chief Tyrol on the series) and subsequently apparently in comments by Mrs. Ron (Terry Moore, producer Ron Moore’s wife) on a sci-fi board. So, not a rumour.
The shit hit the fan.
Which got me wondering. How do you handle a fan storm like this, especially when the bad news was leaked by a principal actor? According to the same convention reports, the next day, Bamber went overboard in his compliments of the network. Did the “hammer” come down? Did someone speak to him “sternly?” Maybe. Probably. But, as a fan, I’m grateful he spilled the beans, and since he’s a pretty smart guy, I’m sure he knew exactly what he was doing.
SciFi Channel is an enigma to me. Sometimes they get it so right, as with the digital press tour and other fan initiatives they’ve had. For example, the Battlestar Galactica fan video contest last Spring and the recent fan voting for the DVD cover for Razor. When you look at these efforts, it seems that they truly understand how important the fans are and want to “do right” by them.
And then you consider some of the programming decisions. Like this one. Which looks like nothing so much as trying to squeeze five seasons for the price of four. Show producers Moore and David Eick wanted a 5th season commitment from the network and only decided to end the series at four when SciFi wouldn’t make the longer term commitment.
Or the cancellation of Farscape. Still a sore spot with many fans, regardless of the possibility of its return next year as a web-based series
The latest report from SyFy Portal seems to indicate that the final decision on BSG hasn’t been made. Naturally, the fans are mobilizing their letter and email writing campaigns.
So my follow-on question for Courtney White: how do you handle this news? First the leak and then the ongoing internet shitstorm?
And for the digital reporters who cover the SciFi beat, did you cover the Dragon*Con leak any differently than you would have prior to the tour last Spring? Were you able to get answers to your questions quickly? Regardless of your feelings about the potential decision itself, was the communication from the network good as you were trying to cover the story?
I hope to have some of these answers for you in the not distant future, and have some additional thoughts at the end of this post. For those of you still interested in the initial case study, and the network’s decision to do the digital press tour, here’s the scoop.
Courtney told me that New Media Strategies has been monitoring online media for Sci Fi for a few years. This year, they decided to develop a digital media network to facilitate partnership with blogs and other online media. Instead of having to compete with the mainstream press for PR department attention, the digital media would have their own dedicated contact, Courtney.
They wanted to kick everything off with an event. Since it was considered very critical to have top talent involved, a large part of their discussions focused on what was possible. It ended up as the two-day event in Vancouver; in addition to the sets, they had access to the actors because most of the shows were in the midst of filming.
They invited sites they had been working with for a long time plus some newer ones.
“Our goal was to put faces to the sites and develop the relationships further. For some sites, who often acted as unofficial brand ambassadors for the network, it was also a way to say thank you.”
“At my company New Media Strategies, we think this would be amazing for other networks to do as well, and we hoped to show them how successful this sort of thing can be.”
I asked her about measurement of results. This is part of New Media Strategies’ proprietary service, so I didn’t get much detail, but she said that they have methods for measurement that factor in both tone and number of mentions.
Courtney was pleased with the good coverage the tour got, but stressed that the long term relationships were more important. I spoke with her just before ComicCon, one of the biggest conventions in the sci-fi world held in San Diego at the end of July, and asked if there was any difference in her relationship with the various sites, a month after the press tour. She said that when she was reaching out about ComicCon she definitely felt a difference between the 31 who attended the event in Vancouver and those who didn’t: "There is a lot going on and relationship matters.”
In response to a query Monday as I was drafting this post, Michael Hinman also emailed me the following:
“Courtney put on an AWESOME event. In my real-life job, I deal with hundreds of PR firms, and many of the experiences aren't a lot of fun. But Courtney and her crew knew exactly what they were doing, and that's why they have 31 bloggers and online journalists who think she is absolutely amazing. :)”
Courtney was pleased with how well the event showcased the online media to the network.
"We work with these bloggers and sites on a daily basis. We know how professional they are. It was great to allow everyone else to see it . That they aren’t rogue bloggers, they are 31of the very best, representing blogs and online to the network. Acting and reporting like journalists.”
At the time we spoke, she felt it was a turning point, and hoped to be able to give even more exclusive coverage to the online sites.
What would you do differently? She said she would “definitely allow more time. Although we were planning it for six months, it was only a month out from the event when we sent out the invitations. Some sites couldn’t swing it in that short a period. I’d also have a longer event, with more time for the panels so we could showcase even more shows and actors. And I’d eat more of the free food.”
I asked her what she would advise other companies considering blogger outreach. She said the most important thing is to establish relationships. She also suggests that you kick it off with something “big” to show the people – whether they are digital media or bloggers – how important they are to you.
She also commented that “companies and the networks have to come down from on high and get to know the consumers, the viewers. Bloggers offer honest opinions and often a true fan perspective is more valuable than the filters of an editor.” That was one of the things that most impressed her about the SciFi event; network execs Bonnie Hammer and Mark Stern attended many of the events, both formal and social, and listened to feedback from the attendees as both journalists and fans (editorial comment below).
“We wanted this to be a first, not a last. We plan to do this more than once per year. We all learned a lot and as we move forward, it will only get bigger and better.And next time we would invite Susan.” :)
When I started writing this post in early August, I thought it would be interesting to get the perspective of an online writer who attended both the Vancouver shindig and ComicCon. Michael from SyFy Portal introduced me to Daniel Malen, the TV Addict. I asked Daniel if he sensed any change in the relationship with the network after the media tour, and particularly at ComicCon.
He said that unlike some of the folks who have been writing for a long time and who might have a different perspective, he’s only been doing the TV Addict site for a couple years, and SciFi has always been very helpful to him. Some networks won’t send him stuff because he lives in Canada, but he noted that Courtney recently had sent him the screener of Flash Gordon (Editorial comment: bit of a mixed blessing, that.)
He also said that she was really helpful before ComicCon, letting him know about the various events and press conferences. but he didn’t have much interaction with the network during the convention. Last year at ComicCon, he attended some press conferences but this year the convention was so crowded, he basically stayed glued to his seat in order to see both the Heroes and BSG panels.
Courtney says she loves working with sci-fi fans because they are so passionate about the genre. As I commented above, I wonder how that plays out when the news is not so good…..
As a fan, I’d hope that Bonnie Hammer and Mark Stern are listening to the fans now too, at least to the Battlestar Galactica fans, and will give us a good fourth season, rather than trying to milk 20 episodes into two seasons. Hell, if they’ve changed their minds and now want some sort of 5th season, I’m sure Moore and Eick can come up with a Plan.
Finally, speaking of Flash Gordon (SciFi), we watched it Friday and I was not impressed. Torchwood (BBC America), on the other hand, was terrific, and I highly recommend it. Be warned though: it does have some pretty adult themes. Doctor Who, Season 3? David Tennant is still no Chris Eccleston, but it seems a bit better… We shall see.
The $25,000 question: should I watch Heroes?
Here are the questions I posed directly to Courtney, Michael and Daniel in an email before I published this post:
How do you navigate the waters when the digital media, who may also be fans, and the fans in general, don’t like what the network is doing? How does your relationship help? How do you balance everything? Especially if as fans, you aren’t crazy about the decision you may be reporting on as reporters.
"I'd say we have to keep in mind the medium we work in within this Digital space, and the very essence of what makes it successful. People want to read the true opinions of those they have come to know and trust. I don't ever want to put my partners in a position where they feel like they can't be honest about a certain decision or property. Instead, we like to try to honor that relationship by giving the partner site as much content and information as possible to use in the most positive way that they can, while being true to their feelings. Helping fans understand the reason behind your decision, and delivering a good product after that decision is also key. I'm lucky that working with the SCI FI Channel, most of the product that they put out is really great stuff - and their decisions are based on solid reasoning.
I think it also comes down to the relationship the fans have with the network. Do they trust that network's vision? Do they trust that that network is really listening to them? If so, I think any property will be given a little more slack to find it's place. Things like the Digital Press Tour and Comicon invitations have helped us to show the fans that they are important and being heard - and that has really worked in everyone's favor over the past few years. ”
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