Buzz Builders

12 Oct

Dorothy Pomerantz, 08.24.11, 06:00 PM EDT
Forbes Magazine dated September 12, 2011

In an increasingly on-demand world, how do you get people to tune in and stay tuned? Take a cue from Ian Sander and Kim Moses. Six years ago the husband-and-wife duo produced a television show called Ghost Whisperer, about a 25-year-old girl (played by Jennifer Love Hewitt) who can talk to ghosts. CBS picked it up and scheduled it to run on Fridays at 8 p.m., a ratings dead zone. Survival meant generating some serious buzz–and not waiting for the network’s help.

The pair organized a conference where paranormal-fanatic bloggers could meet the stars of the show before it aired. They also created a crystal ball game for ghost-fan forums online. Expenses ran short of $100,000, cheap by TV standards. Result: Ghost Whisperer averaged 10 million viewers during its first season–the highest-rated Friday night show that year. Over the next few years (it ran for five) Sander and Moses made a Web series from a ghost’s point of view, called The Other Side. When Comic-Con, a film and TV convention, came around they produced a Ghost Whisperer graphic novel. In some cases sponsors like General Motors covered most of the costs.

Sander and Moses got so good at building buzz they decided to make a business out of it. Today the couple runs two outfits headquartered in the old Animation Building on the Disney lot in Burbank, Calif.: Sander Moses, their production arm, and Slam, a marketing agency that helps TV and movie producers use the Web to snare viewers. According to SNL Kagan, a media research firm, even if a show makes it through its first season, it has only a 30% chance of being renewed the next year. “We have to create an interactive playground,” says Moses, 50.

Sander, 56, and Moses started flirting with online marketing in 1996 while working on the show Profiler. Their lead character, FBI agent Samantha Waters, was tracking down a serial killer who called himself “Jack of All Trades.” One episode took place in Jack’s lair, where the killer typed on his computer. The camera peeked over his shoulder to reveal the URL he was looking at–JackOTrades.com. Viewers who went to that website could chat with the creep and tour his loft. The site was such a hit that NBC executives, worried about the message they were sending, asked to have it taken down.

These days Sander and Moses never make a show without a marketing plan. Last year they pitched a reality show, Psychic in Suburbia (about psychic Maureen Hancock and her family), to the Style Network. The attack included a mobile application that allows users to shake their phones like a magic eight ball and get Hancock’s answer to any question. The show premiered as a onehour documentary in July; Style will decide whether to pick it up as a series in October.

In another project, meant to highlight the show Ugly Betty as it went into syndication earlier this year, Slam created an app that lets viewers “Be Bettyer” by decorating a photo of themselves with Betty traits like thick eyebrows and braces. For Regis and Kelly they created an app allowing fans to run a virtual race in high heels, winning coupons along the way.

“We love what they’re doing,” says Eric Berger, head of Sony Pictures’ Crackle, which hired the couple to create a Web series called Monster Heist, about monsters planning to steal jewels. “They think about the 360-degree experience.”

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