Syfy Courts The Online Community At Annual Digital Press Tour

by , Oct 17, 2011, 11:00 AM
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Syfy’s fifth annual Digital Press Tour this week reinforced what regular attendees of this confab have known for years: It is one of the most efficient and innovative publicity and promotion events in the business.

One might suggest that press conferences in the digital age that are specifically targeted to Web writers, dedicated bloggers and epic tweeters ought to take place online. But watching attendees  interact with Syfy’s talent and executives throughout the one-day tour only reinforced the value of in-person contact, especially in a media-driven environment that encourages instant and continuous communication between all participants.

The digerati were asked to tweet as often as possible and update their blogs and Web sites throughout each of the day’s nine panels, and to further talk with, interview or photograph the talent once each panel concluded. (Many of those tweets can be found at #SyfyTour.) They were also invited to shoot video throughout each panel and immediately upload it to their various online platforms.

The tour included sessions with “Being Human” stars Sam Witwer, Sam Huntington and Meaghan Rath; “Face Off” host McKenzie Westmore and judge Ve Neill; “Sanctuary” stars Amanda Tapping and Robin Dunne, and “WWE Smackdown” wrestlers Wade Barrett and Alicia Fox. There were also panels for Syfy’s December miniseries “Neverland” (a prequel to “Peter Pan”) with cast members Rhys Ifans, Anna Friel and Charlie Rowe; and upcoming one-shot holiday episodes of “Eureka,” “Haven” and “Warehouse 13” with the stars of those shows, Colin Ferguson, Emily Rose and Eddie McClintock, respectively.

The day also included panels for two upcoming series: a supernatural thriller titled “Lost Girl,” about a conflicted succubus, and an observational reality show titled “Monster Man,” which will chronicle the goings-on at a family-run monster movie prop shop in Hollywood.

The biggest news of the day was the announcement of a wild new competition series called “Total Blackout,” which is based on a hit Danish series in which people compete in challenges in complete darkness. (YouTube has some particularly attention-grabbing clips from the Danish show.) Syfy’s adaptation is hosted by former “Family Matters” star Jaleel White, who was also at the tour.

Watching all of this play out was similar to looking around ballrooms during Comic-Con panels and seeing hundreds of fans busily tweeting, emailing and uploading messages, photos and videos right from their seats. The difference, of course, is that most of them have no direct contact with the panelists on hand and their exposure to them is brief. In most cases there is no relationship-building between communicators and subjects, even in the short term.

The Syfy DPT experience excitingly moves beyond that. It is a model for future information gathering and processing of its kind.

It is also a prime example of a television publicity event that a network’s talent actually wants to participate in – even though they have to travel to get there, this year to Loews Royal Pacific Resort at Universal Orlando. In fact, by the end of Syfy’s lavish opening night dinner Sunday -- a “Destination Truth”-themed luau hosted by Syfy president Dave Howe, programming chief Mark Stern and “Truth” host Josh Gates -- talent from several of its shows that had planned to leave Orlando the following day as soon as their panels were finished were scrambling to arrange their schedules so that they could stick around and participate in additional activities. Those activities included a post-luau visit to the Universal Studios theme park for guided tours of its Halloween Horror Nights haunted house exhibits; the chance to ride the park’s newest roller coaster, the Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit (which begins with a 90-degree vertical climb that rises 17 stories above the park and features digitally programmable music for each individual seat); and the spectacular final event of the tour: a private party at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

Tellingly, at each of these events talent would routinely invite the digerati to join them on rides, for drinks or to share tables at meals. This may not seem like such a big deal, but throughout my career I’ve heard more stories than I can remember from network and studio publicists about how difficult it can be to load actors into limos for short rides from their homes to make brief appearances at parties or press conferences (not to mention spending extended periods of time with reporters). The actors and producers who have participated in Syfy’s five digital tours to date have had to travel as far as Vancouver, Colorado and Orlando and then spend two or more days in those locations. They have always done so without complaint, and this year was no exception.

But don’t take my word for it. When I talked with Colin Ferguson at the opening night luau, he told me that with his long-running series “Eureka” coming to an end, he was going to miss attending Syfy’s innovative publicity and promotional events as much as he will making the show itself.

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