AUSTIN, Texas — It’s no longer enough for TV brands to reach fans just by being on the air: these days, they also need a strong ground game, meeting fans where they live and bringing them fun ways to interact with the shows they love.
That’s largely the point of TV network involvement at the annual South by Southwest (SXSW) festival, which offers attendees panels and experiences on everything from blockchain technology — what the heck is it, for example — to e-sports to comedy, film and the genre that started it all, music.
TV is a relative newcomer to the annual 10-day gathering (March 9-18 this year) that started 31 years ago with just over 700 registrants. Today, some 300,000 people attend some part of SXSW, whether that’s the music, interactive, film, education or other tracks, such as the rapidly growing comedy and gaming segments.
Many TV brands were present at this year’s SXSW, including HBO, Showtime, Comedy Central, DirecTV, Syfy, TBS, Freeform, Fox Sports, Netflix, YouTube and more. Several TV shows — including HBO’s Barry, Syfy’s Krypton, Freeform’s Marvel’s Cloak & Dagger and TBSs’ The Last O.G. — premiered at SXSW, while many other networks offered activations.
One of the year’s most visible activations was HBO’s recreation of Westworld’s town of Sweetwater, which agency Giant Spoon and the premium network spent four months setting up at J. Lorraine Ghost Town Manor just outside of Austin. It was probably one of the festival’s toughest tickets to get, with would-be attendees waiting hours for limited seats on one of HBO’s buses out of town.
Once in Sweetwater, attendees could visit the Mariposa Saloon for a stiff drink at the bar (although to be honest, drinks are never in short supply at SXSW) or talk to some of Sweetwater’s denizens.
Parties With a Purpose
Somewhat easier to get into and far longer running was Rachael Ray’s Feedback, a daylong concert held at Stubb’s BBQ that Ray has been hosting for the past 11 years. This year featured such acts as Salt-N-Pepa, Girl Talk and Dr. Pepper’s Jaded Hearts Club Band, an all-star Beatles cover band starring Muse lead singer Matt Bellamy and Nine Inch Nails’s Ilan Rubin. Attendees also were treated to free food — a la Ray’s own recipes — and drinks, including beer from sponsor Modelo.
The digital team from Rachael Ray’s daytime talk show also was on hand to capture content from the proceedings and post it to the show’s website. Ray also held the more intimate Rachael Ray Feedback House party and a fashion pop-up during SXSW. While these events do serve to promote her overall brand, they are far more about giving back to fans.
“We offer free music, free booze, free food and there are people who drive in from hundreds of miles away, people who love the music, love the food and love what she’s doing,” said Andrew Kaplan, vice president of culinary operations for Rachael Ray.
Right across the street from Rachael Ray’s Feedback was Comedy Central’s Backyard Bash, which has been held at Pelons/50 Tequila Bar since 2014. The space has lots of small rooms and indoor and outdoor space, which lets Comedy Central showcase many shows, including Broad City, Corporate, Drunk History, Detroiters and more. Attendees to the free event get two drink tickets, tacos and all the time at the Drunk History dunk tank and Broad City friendship bracelet-making booth they could want.
“This started off as an event where we wanted to do something very modular, where we could always be adding new pieces,” Comedy Central senior vice president of brand activation Shawn Silverman said.
Since 2014, Comedy Central has been making an effort to do much more on-the-ground marketing, starting with events such as SXSW and Comic-Con, and extending this year, for the second year in a row, to Clusterfest in San Francisco.
Warner Bros. also brought its DC Entertainment pop-up to the festival, setting up its mobile Super Hero Lair where people could check out Batmobiles and Batcycles off of Batman and Justice League movie sets, as well as participate in an activation for Syfy’s new series Krypton, about Superman’s grandfather, and take selfies with Teen Titans Go!
Earlier this year, Warner Bros. brought the pop up to Washington, D.C. “We’re trying to customize it for each market we go into,” Lisa Gregorian, president and CMO, Warner Bros. Television Group, said.
For Gregorian and her team, the pop-up represents much more than just a quick activation. It’s an exhibit of American culture and history, focusing on the uniquely American art form of comic books.
“If you go back in history between 1880 and 1920, more than 30 million people immigrated to the U.S. during that time,” she said. “Two young guys in Cleveland created a character about what it was like to be an immigrant. That character was Superman. He had to find his way in America, he had to assimilate, he had to leave behind who he was and not be able to return to his home.”
Showtime Bellies Up
Showtime held a three-day party at the Clive Bar on Rainey Street, which the network turned into Showtime House. Each day celebrated a different series, with SMILF taking its turn on Thursday (March 15), The Chi on Friday and Shameless on Saturday, which coincided with St. Patrick’s Day and the festival’s last day.
“People who go to SXSW tend to be hyper-social in terms of how they share their experiences on social platforms,” Showtime Networks chief marketing officer Don Buckley told Multichannel News. “And it’s a subscriber- acquisition opportunity as well, so we’re going there to proudly showcase some of our key shows.”
That summarizes many TV brands’ approach to SXSW: appeal to the influencers, and then let the influencers bring in other fans.