LOS ANGELES — Hardly a weekday goes by without a Twitter message or a Facebook post from Blair Underwood, one of the stars of The Event, NBC's single greatest hope for the fall television season.
The actor — or his digital assistant — frequently reminds fans about the premiere date of The Event, Sept. 20; promotes the screenings that NBC is holding in several cities; and even posts pictures of the giant billboards and teaser ads about the series.
Television networks and Hollywood studios have long depended on their stars to promote shows and films, but with the growth of social networking on the Internet, actors are becoming direct marketers to a greater extent than ever before. It is evident in the buildup for The Event, as well as other TV shows that are beginning this month.
“You can empower yourself as talent by speaking directly to your consumer base,” Underwood said in an interview in the White House living quarters built for the show.
In part because of his online promotions, Underwood's hometown, Petersburg, Va., was one of five cities to win an NBC contest for an advance screening of the action-mystery series.
In it, Underwood plays the president, one of several characters caught up by a global conspiracy that is — or maybe is not — the aforementioned Event. Laura Innes plays the leader of a group of mysterious detainees, and Jason Ritter plays a young man whose fiancee disappears while on vacation.
Secrecy permeates every conversation about The Event, all the better to stir up more attention. It is the basis of a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign that is entering its final weeks.
Upon announcing the series at its presentation for advertisers in May, NBC released a video trailer that mentioned a presidential assassination plot, a woman's disappearance, and a CIA cover-up of detainees — each followed by messages that those events are not the Event.
In the video, as a plane hijacking is attempted and a secret prison is discovered, an announcer intones: “In our history there have been few events that have changed mankind. The next event is upon us.”
With that and subsequent ads that asked “What is The Event?,” Adam Stotsky, the president for marketing at NBC Entertainment, said “we turned our reticence to explain what the event is into a virtue.” He recalled the saying that “absence makes the heart grow fonder.”
Underscoring the secrecy surrounding the show, Underwood said that just before the cast trekked to San Diego in July for a promotional appearance at Comic-Con, the sprawling fan convention, topic No.1 at a media training session was, “What should we not say about story lines?”
Drafts of scripts are individually marked with each person's name, and they include the warning: “We're a family. The family is only as strong as the secrets it keeps.”
The actors and producers say the secrecy around The Event makes it difficult to even give interviews, a quirk of TV that is shared by other shows, like Mad Men, that detest spoilers.
Jeffrey Reiner, an executive producer of The Event, said last week that his mother had asked him a day earlier what the show's title refers to. “And I said, ‘I love you, but I am not at liberty to discuss it.' ”
Reiner is also well aware that viewers grow frustrated when they feel strung along by a TV show. That complaint came up about ABC's Lost, among other shows. In seemingly every interview this spring and summer, the producers emphasized that answers to viewers' questions will come as early as the second episode. “We start getting to the conspiracy very quickly,” Reiner said.
In August, NBC began introducing the show's characters in more detail, with a national cable TV advertising spot, displays in movie theaters, and a 60-second trailer before some movies. Some of the ads have turned the second “e” in Event around, apparently hinting that the word “Eve” will come into play.
One particular ad, meant for NBC Universal's cable news channel MSNBC, met the ire of Brian Lowry, a television critic for Variety.
The ad purported to be a recording of a secret White House conversation about the detainees, and Lowry asserted that blurring fiction and real life on a news channel “is just plain stupid.”
The goal of the final phase of the campaign, this month, is “to make The Event the media event of the season,” Stotsky said. That entails large advertising buys, like five or six pages in a magazine instead of one or two pages, and advertising wraps of an entire bus instead of a section of the bus.