Cougar Town creator Bill Lawrence will do just about anything to get people to watch his show, which returns to ABC on Feb. 14 after an eight-month hiatus. He's offered to buy fans ponies and throw drunken raves at Disneyland if they promise to watch a 10-minute spoiler reel for the upcoming season. OK, so he was obviously kidding (we think), but all joking aside, Lawrence himself launched a serious social-media push to spread the word about the low-rated Cougar Town when traditional promotional methods — like commercials and talk-show appearances — weren't doing enough to see any significant change in ratings. For the last few months, he has used both Twitter and Facebook to reward fans with swag, exclusive content, and viewing parties, in the hope that it might actually have some impact on the fate of the show. "The exciting part is to see if we can move the dial just a couple little ticks," he says. "The difference for me between a 2.4 and a 2.6 rating is the difference between being renewed immediately, and having to wait until May to see what happens." So will his over-the-top social media crusade translate into better ratings? We asked Lawrence to weigh in on his expectations for his social-media gamble.
What is it about social media that appeals to you?
Bill Lawrence: The coolest thing about social media is that you can immediately see first-hand that people are actually getting it. Someone sent me a picture of a car they saw on the freeway that had "Cougar Town returns Feb. 14 at 8:30 on ABC" painted on its windows, after we asked people to do that on Twitter. It's so much nicer to have the visual representation.
Aside from telling people to tune in, what message do you hope to get across?
Lawrence: That the show isn't canceled! On a daily basis I get people who say, "I'm so bummed out Cougar Town is canceled," and I have to respond and say, "It's not actually. It's just been horribly handled by ABC." Also: It's the worst titled show in the history of television. It's not about an old gal chasing a younger guy for three years.
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But how do you even begin to explain that to people who have never watched?
Lawrence: We put together a big clip reel of the show, which is filled with spoilers. I'm not a big spoiler guy, but it's a tool that someone can show their friends and say, "Hey, it's not about cougars. Watch this clip and if you laugh at all, you might actually dig it." As a group, the cast is sending out the reel in an email to all our acquaintances. We're asking them to do us a solid, and almost like a chain email, send it to 10 other people.
And for the people who are already Cougar Town fans — what are you doing to keep them hooked?
Lawrence: Since the days of Scrubs, I've always felt that you should reward loyalty with extra content and access to the cast and crew. So we're sending do-it-yourself party kits to anyone who posts a picture of themselves on Twitter or Facebook with 25 other people holding a sign saying, "We Want a Cougar Town Party." We're shipping them swag and episodes from this season that haven't aired. I'm sure if people posted them online I'd be arrested. At the end of the night, a cast member gets on Skype with them for 15 minutes to answer questions.
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Is there any part of you that worries all of this is a huge waste of time?
Lawrence: You could easily make the argument, "I may have convinced a few hundred thousand people to check this show out, but if none of them are in Nielsen, then who cares? I've never met a Nielsen family in my life." But if fans of Cougar Town are buzzing about it so much so that one or two Nielsen families watches it when it's on TV, then... Do I think it will work? I don't know. But I would be bummed out if the show didn't survive and I didn't feel like we had tried everything. The difference between staying on and getting canceled is so slight these days, and there's a chance that you can actually use social media to move a dial. I'm not nervous though. I've been doing this forever.
All of this crazy campaigning that you're doing — did the network give you a hard time about it?
Lawrence: When we started, ABC was wary of what we were doing, but they've since become very supportive, and I think that as a network, they'd love it if their showrunners were all out marketing their own shows.
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Do you think that eventually all showrunners are going to be utilizing social media like this?
Lawrence: It will either move the dial a bit, and it will be cool, and people will try it in the future... or nothing will change, we'll go away, and no one will ever have to do it again.
Check out the 10-minute spoiler reel for Season 3 of Cougar Town.
Bill Lawrence on WhoSay
Cougar Town premieres Tuesday, February 14 at 8:30/7:30c on ABC.