Loose Lips Sink Network Schedule Scripts

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Fans of Amazon’s Mad Dogs didn’t get word about the show’s demise from the streaming service or studio. Instead, like an increasing amount of program news these days, the information came from a well-placed but unofficial source. In a 19-part tweet late last month, executive producer Shawn Ryan broke the news of Mad Dogs’ cancelation. Part 19 referred to a hit man in a cat mask from the series. “A cat just walked in,” Ryan concluded to his 32,000 followers. “Looks like I have to go.”

The cat was indeed out of the bag. While Twitter, Facebook and other social platforms are vital megaphones for talking up programs, networks are increasingly learning how hard it is to control producers, cast and crew with access to show secrets—and to social platforms. Drama Finding Carter would not see a third season on MTV, cast member Zac Pullam announced on Twitter in January. In late February, Young & Hungry star Emily Osment tweeted about a season four for the show to her 3.7 million followers, weeks before the official announcement. And Once Upon a Time got picked up for season six, tweeted exec producer Adam Horowitz, several hours before ABC sent out its own account of it.

Scooping one’s own network on the social channels is particularly prevalent around this time of year. “It happens all the time around pickup season and upfront season,” says one veteran publicist. “You’re trying to make a big announcement as you can, and maybe the press people are holding onto something, and then they’re pissed at you because it leaked.”

An informal poll of a half-dozen TV PR gurus revealed a high level of frustration with the practice. (Indicating the sensitive nature of balancing network goals and talent happiness, none would speak for attribution.) As to the consequences, like much in showbiz, it’s a matter of how much juice the offending tweeter has. “If it’s some kid actor, they get a slap on the wrist,” said one. “If it’s a big showrunner, they’re gonna get away with it.”

Adds another PR exec: “The bigger the showrunner, the more they don’t care what the network thinks.”

One communications exec notes how keeping reality show contestants under wraps with scoops and spoilers makes cat herding look easy. In reality’s early, pre-social media boom days, quarantining the cast was doable. Now, all too often an ill-timed post or photo reveals a missing castaway or bachelor that the viewing public was not yet aware of. “Unscripted actors are kind of the Wild West,” said the manager.

On the other end of the leak spectrum, it was notable that word of CBS’ freshman series renewals came from the very top—chairman and CEO Leslie Moonves, speaking at an investor conference in Palm Beach, said he believed all five rookies, including Supergirl and Limitless, would get sophomore runs. Multiple PR vets interviewed for this story hailed CBS as TV’s least-leaky ship. Still, even America’s most-watched network has its moments—last December’s surprise that sitcom Mike & Molly’s sixth season would be its last was revealed by cast members’ posts and tweets that the network waited until January to confirm.

Be More Social

The spin mavens noted the incongruous goals of pushing talent to have a lively and open relationship with fans, while also respecting the wishes of the network to maximize an announcement’s reach. To be sure, networks have social teams that work carefully with show members to codify social media plans. Freeform, for one, starts with Social 101 meetings for talent at the start of any new series, cautioning about spoilers and what else not to share.

“It’s an extremely important platform for us, given our target audience and the nature of our shows,” says Danielle Mullin, Freeform VP of marketing, describing series such as Pretty Little Liars and Shadowhunters as “serialized” by nature. “This has inspired an extreme level of dialogue in the social space.”

The network’s social strategy also includes live Twitter parties in the office for talent when shows are on the air, weekly emails to cast members sharing photos and buzzy verbiage and a Facebook live chat with cast members for a season premiere. As soon as the Liars finale concludes this week, a video featuring showrunner Marlene King teasing the next season’s plot points will be circulated on the usual platforms.

“Our goal is to engage with talent and showrunners very early in the process, and enlist them as collaborators in our social strategy,” says Mullin. “We work together with them as a team.”

With their talent and producers picking up new followers and fans every day, the networks will increasingly need to formalize their social plans to avoid being scooped from within. Notes one TV publicist: “This throws a wild card in there that did not exist before. Things come fast and furious, and one tweet can throw off the best-laid plans.”

Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.