What Bill Lawrence is really spoiling about this season of “Cougar Town”

We live in a spoiler culture. Whether or not you participate in it or not is up to you. But it’s there all the same, sort of like that zit you hope just goes away. But it doesn’t. It never does.  Can you tell I’m not a fan of spoilers? Because I’m not. I’m really, really not.

What constitutes a “spoiler” is up for grabs, which is part of the problem. Does a casting announcement constitute a spoiler? It’s certainly news, but it sometimes leads to problems. But trying to create one all-encompassing view of what makes up a “spoiler” is difficult enough. Trying to assess the actual damage they do is also complicated. For some, knowing things ahead of time adds to the enjoyment. For others, it ruins the experience before it’s even started.

cougar-town-season-3-cast.jpgOften we get to have these conversations on the fan level, unrelated to anything intended by the show itself. But what happens when a show consciously and voluntarily spoils itself by releasing ten minutes of plot-heavy footage from an upcoming season? That’s exactly what “Cougar Town” has done, posting a small chunk of its upcoming episodes online that reveal major upcoming events in the show’s storylines. It’s one thing to argue about how much the creators of “Lost” really want fans to know going into a particular episode. It’s quite another when Bill Lawrence, creator of “Cougar Town,” essentially opens the front door and invites everyone inside.

But did he really invite everyone inside? I watched the ten minutes and thought about how this might be the logical extension of the asynchronous way in which television is currently consumed. It started, in some ways, with the rise of Netflix, Hulu, and other systems in which fans can consume massive back catalogs of shows they missed the first time around. Once it became normal to watch shows out of order after the fact, it was a small leap to start thinking about working the other way. If it was OK to watch television long after it traditionally aired, why not start watching it well before it will traditionally air? Shows like “New Girl” and “Smash” have all released episodes in advance of their actual premiere date in order to drum up interest. And “Spartacus” recently put up the season premiere of “Vengeance” in order to sate early fan interest.

But the “Cougar Town” footage seemed different in a few key ways. So I contacted Lawrence directly to find out if he thought the ten-minute preview of Season 3 really was an extension of current trends or something different. Here’s his reply:

It’s not a “new standard” as far as clips go. We have a different burden - getting people back after nine months, convincing folks to try a show with a polarizing title. But: why not put every episode out? You’re not trying to get all those people to watch it on TV, you’re trying to get word of mouth, and buzz to spread to the 25,000 NIELSEN households (that’s it - has anyone met one?) that determine the fate of your show. That is our flawed system: 25,000 households representing entire TV viewing country. You just have to hope that if a Nielsen family watches pilot/clips early, they are still compelled to watch again because they liked it and want to keep show alive. Ruining it for the masses or encouraging them to watch on their computer doesn’t matter until the system changes.

I looked up the “25,000 households” fact to make sure I’d read it correctly. I knew the Nielsen ratings were skewed, but I didn’t realize exactly how skewed. But Lawrence is right: that’s the number of households that determine if “Cougar Town,” “Community,” “Fringe,” and other small but beloved shows get to stay on the air. In an upcoming, much lengthier interview with Lawrence, we get into specifics about the ratings for his shows and how reality probably doesn’t match perception. But for now, let’s look at the real reason Lawrence put this footage online. It’s an outside-the-box way to reach one of 25,000 households via methods not currently employed by traditional marketing.

cougar-town-s3.jpgAfter all, Lawrence and company are essentially trying to spoil misconceptions about the show, not spoil upcoming plot points. Notice how I’m not talking about the specifics of what’s in the footage? It’s because I still believe that telling anyone who doesn’t want to know what’s going to happen is as close to a crime as I can commit as a critic. Had I learned about what goes down in the episodes I’ve already seen this way, my viewing experience would have fundamentally changed. Does that matter on a show like “Cougar Town”? When it comes to hearing jokes before they air on ABC, very little. When it comes to that final scene in the 10-minute preview? It matters a lot. Because that moment hit me like a freight train the first time I saw it.

But I’m not the intended audience for these ten minutes. People who may have added two dozen shows in the time since “Cougar Town” was last on the air is the audience for these ten minutes. People who think the show is still about “Courteney Cox fucking 20-year old men” is the audience for these ten minutes. “Cougar Town” is betting that people who actually sit down and are forced to watch the show, “Clockwork Orange”-style, will be really confused and delighted by what’s actually on screen. Showing them the interactions on the show, the adult interactions that in no way shape or form involve Monica from “Friends” boinking college dudes, is one of the only ways to convince people to combat their preconceptions. And while spoiling what happens this season bothers me a little, I’m in the phenomenally small majority for whom this matters on “Cougar Town.” It’s a hang out show. It doesn’t take place inside a hatch where people have to open a bottle of wine every 108 minutes or the world ends. (Although I would watch the ever-loving SHIT out of that show.)

In the end, this is about “Cougar Town” recognizing that traditional methods of identifying and reaching an engaged audience simply don’t work within conventional structures of advertising. Networks value 15 million passive fans over 5 million engaged fans, because there’s no way to monitor and more importantly MONETIZE those 5 million in a way that makes sense to their bottom lines. That’s a fault on their part, to be sure. But the real fault lies in a monolithic, all-encompassing, one-size-fits-all to promoting shows. Between producing online content for Vulture last year, hosting a series of viewing parties throughout the country, and now giving away ten minutes of footage online, no one can accuse “Cougar Town” of taking a passive approach to promoting itself.

Will it work? It’s unclear. But I really love the attempts, because even if the specifics don’t work, the ethos behind them is something more shows need to embrace. We’ve got too much good television these days, which is a great problem but a problem all the same for shows trying to break through the white noise of overabundant choice. Relying on commercials in a DVR culture? Dumb. Relying on word of mouth? Not bad, but too anecdotal to really matter, especially if it doesn’t trickle back to one of those 25,000 households. But there are ways to demonstrate a fan base, and its loyalty, without forcing them to move in, hostel-style, into one of those homes with a Nielsen box. “Cougar Town” may not find them all. But who can fault them for trying?

4 Comments

  1. Jon
    Posted February 6, 2012 at 11:27 pm | Permalink

    Way not to mention parks and rec as a low rated show. Ratings ate just as low as community

  2. Jesse Sheehan
    Posted February 7, 2012 at 1:35 am | Permalink

    I started watching the show last spring after continuous attempts by a friend to get me to watch it - It was the Penny Can giveaway that ultimately changed my mind. Since then I’ve been a huge advocate for the show among friends - playing Penny Can at parties (I’m a college student), and telling people I’m going to an episode viewing with some of the cast have definitely piqued their interest. Will they actually tune in next Tuesday (or Wednesday online) to watch the show? Unfortunately, probably not.

    It’s an interesting idea to put all of this season’s spoilers into a little video to gain new viewers, but I wonder if he could have just released a great montage of clips from past episodes. I haven’t seen the season 3 spoiler video yet - and hopefully I won’t anytime soon - but perhaps there could have been another way around gaining audiences. For example, Penny Can’s a great party game (though trying to teach your friends the rules when they’re drunk is quite aggravating - they just want to chuck pennies into a can), so maybe a couple clips of the game in the show and people playing it in real life could have caught on. It has How I Met Your Mother all over it in terms of a situation/game that can easily be recreated, but because of the name it’s been largely ignored. From the creator of Scrubs could be a good way to advertise as well.

    Regardless, I love how much effort Mr. Lawrence and company have put into getting their show out there and trying to gain new viewers. There’s no one clear answer to how to get more fans, but this is certainly an interesting strategy and I hope it works out!

    (PS You should put “NO SPOILERS” at the top of the article - I was nervous the whole time until you wrote there wouldn’t be spoilers about halfway through the article :) )

  3. Posted February 7, 2012 at 10:20 am | Permalink

    Jon: I could mention a dozen, if not two dozen, shows with low ratings that are enjoyable to watch. I didn’t slight “Parks and Rec” via omission.

  4. Posted February 7, 2012 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    Im not watching the 10 minute reel but i do hope it sparks interest in cougar town i love the show and hope this season is great and that it leads to season 4

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