Why TV Networks Want You To Watch Fall Shows Before They Air

The fall season isn't scheduled to start for another several weeks, but with a little web searching you can sample the first episodes of a whole bunch of the new TV shows early for free. Counterintuitive as it sounds, the networks are so intent on hooking you that they're willing to lure viewers away from watching the premiere episode on air, where the ratings actually count.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The fall TV season doesn't officially begin for another few weeks, but you can already get an early look online. At least six series premiers are now available for free. Commentator Andrew Wallenstein says it's a risky bet for the networks.

ANDREW WALLENSTEIN, BYLINE: Of all the new TV shows, I was most interested in seeing "The Goldbergs," a new ABC sitcom set in the 1980s about a dysfunctional family.

(SOUNDBITE FROM TV SERIES "THE GOLDBERGS")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I know you go through life feeling angry, misunderstood.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Do you ever cry into your pillow?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: No, I don't cry in my pillow. Who cries in their pillow?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Not me. I don't.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: "The Goldbergs" premieres Tuesday, September 24th on ABC.

WALLENSTEIN: But you don't have to wait until the 24th, just go online, where the first episode has been available on ABC.com and Hulu three weeks before its TV premiere.

(SOUNDBITE FROM TV SERIES "THE GOLDBERGS")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: I agree with whatever nonsense your mother just said.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Come on. This is not fair.

WALLENSTEIN: ABC is giving similar sneak peeks to two other shows, while NBC has two of its own, like the upcoming detective drama, "Ironside."

(SOUNDBITE FROM TV SERIES "IRONSIDE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: I was thinking about running the marathon, see if she has a trainer. They're the new bartender for people who don't have time for a shrink. So toss the department first. Take Teddy with you.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: I can handle it.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Yeah, but who's gonna handle you?

WALLENSTEIN: The broadcast networks have been experimenting with these pre-premieres off and on for the past six years and it's never really made sense to me. I mean, think about it. If I watch that first episode early online, am I really going to watch it again when it debuts on actual TV? And it's TV where it's most crucial to get as many people to watch as possible. Every ratings point counts in a business where the networks have been known to cancel a show after just an episode or two.

But here are the networks' logic. Online previews mean more people will be talking about their show, which will drive additional viewers to the TV premiere. And that makes some sense. But that logic is also predicated on the flaw that came to mind as I watched one of the other ABC sitcoms made available early, a family comedy set in the world of Little League baseball called "Back In The Game."

(SOUNDBITE FROM TV SERIES "BACK IN THE GAME")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: What's that noise?

JAMES CAAN: (as character) A raccoon got caught in the wall a couple weeks ago, probably not dead yet.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Okay.

WALLENSTEIN: Wow. That's really not that funny. So now not only am I not going to watch what I might have tuned into for that crucial TV premiere, but I'm gonna tell others not to watch, too. So whether you're watching early or on time, a basic TV rule always applies. It's got to be good.

SIEGEL: Andrew Wallenstein is editor and chief of Variety.

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