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April 30, 2009

What should NBC and Subway do about the "Save Chuck" campaign?

by Josh Bernoff

From my Ad Age DigitalNext blog post.

Chuck Thousands of fans of the NBC series "Chuck" are rallying around the show with campaigns on Facebook and Television Without Pity. What makes this campaign different from the many other "save our show" campaigns is the suggestion that fans buy footlong sandwiches at Subway, since Subway was recently  a featured advertiser in the show. Star Zachary Levi and Subway are actively participating in the campaign (check out the video below of hundreds of fans following Levi and buying subs in Birmingham, England).

Since this happened with the show Jericho (remember the 20 tons of nuts?) we can learn from the past. In that case, CBS un-cancelled the show in part because of the deluge of nuts from a groundswell of loyal viewers. CBS asked the viewers to recruit their friends to watch the show. But the ratings didn't reflect much enthusiasm, and they cancelled the show again.

Moral: thousands of visible, loyal viewers does not equal millions of actual viewers. Objects in the groundswell may be smaller than they appear. People who congregate online are not a representative sample.

So, what should NBC do?

  1. Acknowledge the enthusiasm by wading into fan forums and commenting directly with an identified NBC spokesperson. (Why do companies have so much trouble doing this?) Ask them to prove their loyalty by recruiting viewers for summer reruns, online stream viewing, etc. Buying footlongs is transient -- recruiting viewers is proof they have influence.
  2. If an insufficient number of viewers show up, take the show and its small but loyal following to an NBC cable network like USA.

What should Subway do?

  1. Continue to provide places and encouragement for viewers regardless of where the show goes. This sort of affinity group is hard to find. But . . .
  2. Acknowledge that while this may generate a new set of Subway customers, they may not be permanent. Subway needs its own affinity group, borrowing one from "Chuck" is a just a short-term boost. (There are hundreds of thousands of Subway fans on Facebook -- but I don't see the company doing much with these fans.)

UPDATE: (5/21): Not only was Chuck renewed, but Subway's sponsorship was a key part of the process. So contrary to what I said above, this campaign has influenced the network through the sponsor. Now Chuck's viewers must motivate others to watch or it'll just get cancelled again as Jericho did.


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It'd be interesting to see where the substantiation to the claim that, "People who congregate online are not a representative sample" comes from.

According to internetworldstats.com, about 75% of the North American population uses the Internet with an increase of 132% in user growth since 2000.

Now since the claim is that this is not a representative sample, what does that say about Nielsen Media Research? Hace they penetrated 75% of US households or even come close to increasing their sampling size 132% in the last eight years?

Can we really say that the demographics in TV viewers is that different from Internet Users, especially in the coveted 18-49 age group? Can we really say that the demographics in viewers enthusiastic enough about TV to become Nielsen families are really all that different than those willing to save the shows they like?

There's an old saying that 10% of the people do 90% of the work... It's a universal truism.

Josh Bernoff

@mark Careful. People who ARE online may be typical but people who care enough about Chuck to protest are not.

Jim Deitzel

I love the "Objects in the groundswell may be smaller than they appear" comment. It's very true.

Your suggestions are also spot on. Hope both NBC & Subway are reading.

John Maccagnan


Here's exactly what I wrote on April 7 in the TWoP forum that inspired the brilliant idea to make Subway the focus of the fan campaign:

"Writing to NBC seems to be the wrong way to go about this. What we really need to do is pick a sponsor and bombard them with allegiances to their products until the day we die, and even then we would like to be buried with a bottle of their laundry detergent, provided that they continue to be a sponsor of Chuck. Heck, I would suffer through American Idol-like Ford/Coke pimping IN the actual episodes of Chuck if I knew it was keeping it on the air.

(It's actually a good selling point to be IN the episodes, because you can't FF through that on the DVR or avoid it when watching on the web.)"

When I threw this out there, the Jericho story was EXACTLY what I was thinking about, in that executives are even less likely to listen to fans these days. My thought process was to hit the decision makers right where they would notice: the wallet. I also pointed out that NBC has an above average ability to generate new revenue streams, as it is very friendly to in-show advertising, which is also something that advertisers will find more appealing as viewing habits change.

Basically, what I was suggesting was that the fans should go after a sponsor, which in theory, would cause both the sponsor and the network to look beyond the traditional ratings system when evaluating the (monetary) value of Chuck to each of them. The Subway idea was never a Jericho-like campaign to demonstrate fan fervor to NBC. It was aimed at influencing somebody who COULD influence NBC.

After Wendy came up with the idea to make the sponsor and then tirelessly got the word out, I think it worked even better than I thought it would have. From what I've read, not only is Subway pleased as punch and is working on plans for what it will do with Chuck for the third season, but we managed to capture the attention of other sponsors. On top of all that, at the NBC sneak preview of next season, they spent some time talking about new and different ways of generating advertising revenue. I'm sure it's been in their head for a while, but the whole Subway product-placement/fan involvement seems buzz seems to have at the very least, made them think about moving more aggressively in that direction.

It's all very fascinating to watch.

Gratis Goody

Just because NBC renewed Chuck, which I have never watched or probably ever will, doesn't mean it is here to stay. I would say that this is a one time shot and it will be on the chopping block all over again. Subway's involvement, well, advertisement and the additional subs it was selling to in part to the campaign. I can't believe a restaurant chain cares one way or the other about the program. I wouldn't count on their support again ... unless it was REALLY REALLY $$ profitable $$ for them this time around.

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