Maria Johnson, a bank teller from Memphis, N.Y., watches TV with a devotion that borders on the religious. On Sundays, pro football plays on her family's 25-inch set from noon until night. Thursday evenings revolve around "Survivor" on CBS, so she has to tape Fox's "The O.C.," which airs during the same hour, for later viewing.
Johnson, 31, not only watches a lot but also prides herself on spreading the word to get others to tune in. She hooked her husband, Corey, on ABC's hit drama "Lost" last season and they haven't missed an episode. Johnson also talked so much about Fox's "American Idol" and CBS' "Amazing Race" that a friend at work became addicted too.
"I'm really into TV, I know what shows are on and I plan out exactly what I'm going to watch," Johnson said. "And if there's a reality show on, I have to watch it right away so I can talk about it the next day."
Johnson gives new meaning to the term TV evangelist, and lately reaching people like her has become the Holy Grail of network executives. As the 2005-06 television season officially kicks off today, the six major networks have rolled out multipronged marketing campaigns to create the buzz that drives viewership.
But this year more than ever before, those campaigns have been aimed at "super fans" -- a chatty, peer-influencing group that networks believe can help them win the ratings wars.
"They are the fuse that lights the firecracker, and really sets things on fire," said Lewis Goldstein, co-president of marketing for the WB network, which after two lousy seasons desperately needs to scare up a new hit.
So for "Supernatural," its new Tuesday night suspense thriller, the network -- which is owned by Time Warner Inc. and Tribune Co. (which publishes the Los Angeles Times) -- has gone beyond mere promotional ads. To reach the show's intended audience -- young, hip horror fans -- the WB installed special mirrors in about 200 nightclubs in three cities. The mirrors displayed a haunting image from the show's pilot: a terrified woman seemingly pinned to a ceiling.
The idea was simple, said the WB's other marketing president, Bob Bibb: to get people talking.
"Our best chance of success is getting the core group hooked up from the very beginning," said Bibb, who also sent "Supernatural" coffee cup sleeves to nearly 500 cafes around the country. When heated, the sleeves revealed the same spooky image of a floating woman.
This year's widespread push to try something different is fueled at least in part by a desire to mimic ABC's success last season. The network, owned by Walt Disney Co., won plenty of free publicity last year for the clever stunts it used to launch its most promising new shows.
To lure women to "Desperate Housewives," for example, the network supplied dry cleaners around the country with thousands of bags that carried the show's catchphrase: "Everyone has a little dirty laundry." To spark interest in the mysterious, trapped-on-an-island drama "Lost," ABC arranged for tiny bottles to wash ashore on beaches. Inside was a message: "Lost" could be "found" on Wednesdays.
"If you do things right, you get higher 'talk value,' " said Michael Benson, ABC's senior vice president for marketing. This season, he's at it again: to hype "Commander in Chief," a new drama starring Geena Davis as the first woman president, ABC got the U.S. Treasury to OK the circulation of an undisclosed number of dollar bills with stickers of Davis' face covering George Washington's.
"It's about creating something that you want to tell your friends about, and show your family members," Benson said, adding this caveat: "You've got to make sure it's organic to the show, original and unexpected."
This year, the networks together have spent more on marketing than ever before: $200 million, by some estimates.
In part, that expenditure is prompted by the fact that the networks are locked in a tighter-than-usual ratings race. In contrast to years past, when NBC was the undisputed leader, less than one ratings point separated the Big Four networks last season among the coveted 18- to 49-year-old demographic. As a result, the fight to pull ahead has gotten even more intense.
The battle to reach more eyeballs has also grown desperate as many people have left TV behind. This summer, network ratings plunged as millions turned to other entertainment options, including the Internet, video games and movies on DVD.
Stuart Fischoff, a media psychologist at Cal State L.A., said the decline in viewership meant the networks needed to be more creative. "What they have been doing hasn't been working," he said. "They are trying to staunch the hemorrhage."
That's where the super fans come in.
Consider "The Biggest Loser," NBC's weight-loss reality show, which began its second season last week. To ensure a strong kickoff, the network hired a firm to arrange 1,000 house parties across the country. Nearly 5,300 people showed up, some donning "Biggest Loser" T-shirts, and received gifts such as yoga mats and gym discounts.
The ratings for the 90-minute installment were solid, but not spectacular. The show averaged 7.8 million viewers. The hope, however, is that dedicated viewers will help those numbers grow.
"We are in a sense deputizing these people to help market the show," said Parker Reilly, president of House Party Inc., the firm that organized the "Biggest Loser" events. "The whole point is to find people who are obsessed with the show. We're empowering the choir to go out and spread the word."
Fox Broadcasting had the same goal when it targeted an unlikely group of proselytizers -- tattoo artists -- to promote the gritty new drama "Prison Break." The show centers on a young man who robs a bank so he can be sent to the prison where his brother sits on Death Row. Plotting escape, he has blueprints of the prison tattooed on his torso.
So Fox sent crews to about 100 tattoo parlors to give patrons a sneak peek of the show. Chris Carlisle, Fox's executive vice president for marketing, unleashed "chain gang" street teams that offered free head shaves and henna tattoos.
According to Carlisle, who in past seasons arranged private screenings for hair and nail stylists, "The best way to get your message out is word of mouth. The most important thing is to have someone [viewers] trust in their lives tell them that they have to watch a show."
Buzz has become so crucial to success that the ad-buying firm Initiative has designed a system to analyze chatter on the Internet about upcoming shows and to assess whether viewers' perceptions are positive or negative.
Stacey Lynn Koerner, an Initiative executive vice president, considers the denizens of Internet chat rooms "higher-order evangelists." To reach them, she said, "the networks need to create experiences around their core programs -- rather than just putting shows out there. They need to feed that experience in order to survive."
How well does any one gimmick work? It's impossible to tell. George Schweitzer, CBS marketing group president, is philosophical, calling each promotion "part of the buzz-building. It's another reminder of the show."
Or at least, it's another coffee sleeve. CBS has one to promote its new comedy, "How I Met Your Mother." "You've got your Joe," it says, "but have you met Ted?" -- a reference to the show's lead character. CBS also sponsored a "speed dating" event at New York's Grand Central Station and sent DVDs of the pilot episode to magazine subscribers.
Johnson, the New York bank teller, was among those who received a DVD. It worked: she's already slotted the Monday night show into her schedule.
"I would actually watch that show again," she said.