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July 13, 2012

Comic-Con: Television is a conquering hero

Posted in: Comic-Con,TV

Will Blagg, dressed as the alien from the movie “Predator,” has fun with a group trying to land tickets to Comic-Con International. Even though movies have a big presence at the event, TV is gaining ground. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

Think of it as TV’s Comic-Cannes.

Since its inception 42 years ago, Comic-Con International has been a celebration of fanboy culture. When geek became the new cool, it also worked as a marketing platform for Hollywood and video game makers. Now, it’s the place where the television industry comes to build buzz for new shows and reward the audiences of established ones.

More than 80 television series courted the crowds at Comic-Con last year with premieres, panels and promotional events. This year in San Diego, the numbers are just as high – and the visibility even greater.

From the poster-plastered pedicabs to the building side displays, TV is taking center stage. NBC has overtaken Gaslamp Square Park and created interactive experiences with its fairy tale series “Grimm” and new J.J. Abrams thriller “Revolution.”

Inside the Convention Center, AMC’s wildly popular zombie apocalypse tale “The Walking Dead” occupies prime real estate. And the convention’s vaunted Hall H, which seats some 6,500, is welcoming an unprecedented number of TV shows, including for the first time HBO’s fantasy series “Game of Thrones” and CBS’ geeky sitcom “The Big Bang Theory.”

“It’s become a tentpole for us,” says Richard Licata, executive vice president, communications, for NBC Entertainment and Universal Television, echoing the sentiments of many network and studio marketing and publicity heads. “It’s the Super Bowl of response.”

It isn’t just the traditional geek-friendly fare that’s represented. For every no-brainer like “The Walking Dead,” there’s a tonal wild card like
Showtime’s dysfunctional family drama “Shameless,” NBC’s sharp sitcom “Community” or AMC’s meth-dealing “Breaking Bad.”

Timing has something to do with it; the dates of Comic-Con make it a perfect place to preview fall shows. Corralling the talent is also a breeze -
television has no Sundance or Cannes, making Comic-Con one of the few places on the planet where a television writer is treated like a rock star by screaming thousands.

Head writers like “Doctor Who’s” Steven Moffat, “Sons of Anarchy’s” Kurt Sutter and “True Blood’s” Alan Ball face the same kind of rising hysteria as their casts. And this year, Bryan Fuller will have his own panel to discuss his upcoming shows, “Mockingbird Lane” and “Hannibal.”

But perhaps the biggest factor in television’s Comic-Con ascendance is the unique position TV has in popular culture: smack dab at the intersection of several roads diverging in the golden digital wood of media.

The serial nature of television demands a more intimate and committed relationship from its audience than does most film; the nearest relative may in fact be comic books. The proliferation of networks, genres and methods of delivery turned many of those relationships polygamous, and the rise of social media made them public.

Viewers not only regularly tweet their opinion of a specific show or episode as it happens, they communicate their often astonishingly detailed thoughts to writers and cast, who often respond in real time. Recapping has become an OCD art form and TV message boards jump from peppy posts in adolescent icon-speak to scholarly theses on the nature of time.

Geeks are all about establishing intimacy through a shared genre mania, expressing adoration through an encyclopedic knowledge. Now the works of TV show runners like Fuller, Abrams and Ball are parsed with the same avidity as those of Stan Lee and J.R.R. Tolkien.

Even before TV’s latest push, Comic-Con was already filled with the people who saved NBC’s spy sitcom “Chuck” via Twitter and Facebook, who allowed ABC’s mysterious drama series “Lost” to survive smoke monsters and polar bears, and who regularly keep endangered shows like Fox’s sci-fi “Fringe” on the air.

“These are the passionate fans who brought ‘Family Guy’ back from the dead,” says Chris Alexander, vice president of corporate communications and publicity for 20th Century Fox. “An audience who wants to know and see and touch every part of the show.”

Even though in recent years film has sucked the air out of the coverage, there has always been a TV element to Comic-Con. After all, it was the Trekkies who defined the ethos, and shows like “The X-Files” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” made it modern. TV’s turning point may have been in 2006 when NBC hit Comic-Con with the superhuman fantasy series “Heroes” that led to a template for social media buzz and proved that a geek niche show could command a big audience.

Increasingly, however, the ardent nature of a show’s fans has become more important even than the original parameters of superhero/sci fi/fantasy genres. “Obsessive” is a word that comes to mind for the faithful viewers, though marketing types prefer “passionate.”

Jose Dacio, with son Lucas Dacio on his shoulders, checks out a statue of Batman in Comic-Con’s main hall at the San Diego Convention Center. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

So just as it made perfect sense for AMC to premiere its graphic novel-inspired show “The Walking Dead” at Comic-Con two years ago, it now makes just as much sense for them to bring their prestige drama “Breaking Bad” down this year.

“The intense relationship of the fans to the show, the passion people feel, that’s what Comic-Con has turned into,” says Linda Schupack, AMC’s executive vice president of marketing. “These shows have such a strong hold on people, and the role they play in popular culture and the currency they have in the conversation, that’s what makes ‘Breaking Bad’ a good fit.”

It wasn’t always thus; “Glee” and even “The Big Bang Theory” caused a lot of debate both within their studios and among attendees. In 2008, FX wanted to take offbeat comedy “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” to Comic-Con. Aware that, on first glance, the show starring Danny DeVito might not fit, the network hired a consultant to navigate the convention’s programming approval process.

More important, FX enlisted the aid of Damon Lindelof, co-creator of “Lost” which was at its zenith. “I heard that he was a fan of the show,” says John Solberg, FX’s head of media relations, “so I reached out and he agreed to host the panel, which obviously helped a lot.”

The show was assigned to Ballroom 20, which seats 4,800, a number that, Solberg said, probably represented half the entire audience of the show at the time. “Everyone was concerned about the turnout; what happens if no one showed up?”

They needn’t have worried. “People lined up for hours,” he says. “I was stunned. And it wasn’t folks who were just curious or who came to see Damon or Danny, it was rabid fans. Chanting.”

– Mary McNamara

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