Blinding Them With Science—and Platforms

Fox dug deep to promote the March 9 premiere of its new science documentary series, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, sending host Neil deGrasse Tyson on a publicity tour that took him as far away as Singapore and even landing a pre-taped introduction from President Obama. But the fulcrum of the effort was the broadcast itself.

Though the bulk of Cosmos’ 13-episode season will air Sunday nights on Fox (with extended encores slated for Monday nights on the National Geographic Channel), the premiere was broadcast on eight Englishlanguage and two Spanish-language Fox Networks Group channels. The strategy yielded solid rating results on premiere night. The Cosmos launch drew a total of 8.5 million viewers and a core 2.9 rating among adults 18-49 across all 10 networks in Nielsen live-plus-same-day numbers.

“It’s about having a new series break out of the clutter of all the entertainment choices, all the chatter that’s out there,” says Matt McAllister, professor of communications at Penn State. “It makes it seem bigger that there’s multiple networks involved.”

Although simulcasting is not new, it appears to be gaining traction as a programming strategy. Turner has, since 2007, simulcast the Screen Actors Guild Awards on TNT and TBS. In November, Discovery debuted scripted feature The Challenger Disaster on Science Channel and Discovery Channel. The following month, A+E Networks broadcast scripted two-parter Bonnie and Clyde across its three main networks—History, Lifetime and A&E.

“Trying to expose today’s audiences to real science and get people excited about it—there isn’t really a show like it on TV right now,” says Stacey Shepatin, executive VP and director of national broadcast at Hill Holliday. “So in order to get as much visibility for it as possible, as quickly as possible, [Fox] running it across all of their outlets was, I think, a great idea.”

Selling Space

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey is a successor to the 1980 PBS miniseries Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, cocreated and hosted by Carl Sagan. The new series benefited from the promotional prowess of Tyson, an astrophysicist known as much for his media savvy as his scientific chops, and executive producer Seth MacFarlane, who helped conceive Spacetime Odyssey with Sagan’s original collaborators. The multi-network premiere created an event-viewing atmosphere around the project.

“We’ve had eight Sunday nights in a row with an event, and Fox wanted to make it nine,” says Brad Adgate, senior VP of research at Horizon Media.

But while the simulcast may have driven buzz for Cosmos, it did not spread the wealth the way that Bonnie and Clyde and The Challenger Disaster did.

Part one of Bonnie and Clyde drew 9.8 million total viewers live-plus-same-day, distributed somewhat evenly across the three networks—3.7 million on History, 3.1 million on Lifetime and 3.0 million on A&E. Part two drew 7.4 million viewers—2.8 million on History and 2.3 million each for Lifetime and A&E.

The Challenger Disaster drew far fewer viewers— 1.9 million total, 1.2 million of whom watched on Discovery. But the 730,000 who tuned in to Science Channel was the net’s largest audience of the year.

The Cosmos premiere, meanwhile, saw Fox seize the bulk of the viewership and leave little for its cable cousins. The premiere drew 5.8 million viewers on the broadcast network—followed on the Englishlanguage networks by 1.2 million on National Geographic, 843,000 on FX, 238,000 on FXX, 200,000 on Nat Geo Wild, 163,000 on Fox Sports 1, 45,000 on FXM and 26,000 on Fox Sports 2.

But Adgate dismisses the notion that the network group shorted its cable channels by handing an hour of Sunday-night primetime over to a series that is, for many of them, off-brand and unlikely to ever grace the lineup again.

“It was just a one-hour special,” Adgate says. “I don’t think it will harm the programming strategy or the network brand, or alienate viewers.” The success of the Cosmos launch will be revealed in the coming weeks. “Since it will be on for 12 more weeks, it’s important that there is as little audience falloff as possible,” Adgate says.

If the audience holds, Fox will have managed to turn an educational science doc inspired by ’80s public television into a solid ratings performer. That feat could inspire more multi-network events. Fox, after all, isn’t the only broadcaster to share a parent company with a portfolio of cable networks.

“If it’s considered successful, absolutely, you would see it again,” Shepatin says. “But the media companies would have to weigh what they’re giving up on those other networks. It would depend on what they’re pre-empting to run it.”