At last count, there were approximately a bazillion ways to watch television. (A bazillion and one after you finished reading that sentence, probably.) And while it might seem like networks are simply ignoring ways to consume entertainment, that’s not entirely true. Starting yesterday, Syfy made the series premiere of its new space opera “The Expanse” available on just about any digital platform imaginable, a full three weeks before it’ll see the light of a TV screen on Dec. 14.
"With its cinematic feel, compelling characters, intense action and universal themes, it's important for Syfy to provide the opportunity for as many people as possible to watch and fall in love with this series," said Syfy President Dave Howe in a statement.
But it’s not just Syfy: Showtime has been doing this for years with series like “Homeland” and “The Affair”-- uploading smaller versions of season openers on YouTube before their premieres on the channel proper. Starz did it with its Scottish time-travel series “Outlander” in 2014, making it available to 82 million cable subscribers one week before its real premiere. USA followed suit this summer with the critically acclaimed hacker drama (no, really!) “Mr. Robot.”
What many of these shows have in common is that they represent big swings for their respective networks. Once known for lighter dramas like “Psych” and “Royal Pains,” USA has also been looking to transform itself into more of a dramatic heavyweight. After a pilot for the dark, twisted “Mr. Robot” won an audience award at South by Southwest’s TV Festival and was a selection at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival, the network saw an opportunity to build some more buzz.
It worked, too, with 2.7 million people checking out the first episode of “Robot” on VOD, the USA site and many other venues online. That was a healthy enough interest to spur USA to renew the show for a second season, just hours before the show actually premiered on TV. While the TV ratings weren’t necessarily gangbusters, they were solid enough to suggest that the audience enjoyed what they were seeing. Starz experienced similar success with “Outlander,” which drew 900,000 pairs of pre-linear eyeballs and 1.5 million more on the night of its premiere.
These shows also tend to be designed to appeal to a younger audience: “Robot,” in particular, is poised to fill the role for Gen. Y that “The X-Files” played for Gen. X, a narrative that speaks for and about a generation. The trouble with developing shows that appeal to younger viewers is that younger viewers, statistically, aren’t watching TV in the first place. They’re not going to catch your promos or stop on the premiere while flipping channels.
“The Expanse” is the first of Syfy’s latest crop of series, including the upcoming "Childhood's End" and "The Magicians"-- both aimed at winning back the channel’s core audience of true sci-fi fans -- those that fell in love with “Battlestar Galactica,” only to watch the network drift away from that kind of quality drama in favor of B-movies like “Sharknado” and cheap imports. This situation makes these shows ideal candidates for early releases, as they will also suggest that Syfy is back in the quality sci-fi business.
“The Expanse” is quite a dense world to foist onto the unsuspecting viewer, a future in which humanity has sprawled over an asteroid belt and a couple of planets, mining space ice as a water supply. Giving viewers time to chew it over (and handing them an instructive site) just might increase the chance they'll tune in again.