BY CYNTHIA LITTLETON
USA Network’s “Mr. Robot” is emerging as the poster child for TV’s new metrics. The dark drama about an anti-social hacker battling corporate evil-doers was an unqualified hit this summer because it generated the kind of heat for the NBCUniversal cabler that money can’t buy.
“It’s become a real cultural touchstone,” said USA Network president Chris McCumber, crediting the vision of series creator/exec producer Sam Esmail. “Sam Esmail with every episode reflected what’s going on in our society right now. Whatever was happening on ‘Mr. Robot’ was happening in the news.” So much so that the season finale had to be delayed by a week because of an eerie similarity to the real-life shootings of two journalists on live TV in Roanoke, Va., on Aug. 26.
The show made every “best TV of the summer” list and garnered shout-outs from famous fans, from “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner to “Breaking Bad” star Aaron Paul. But perhaps the most satisfying, McCumber noted, was a tip of the hat from Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower holed up in Russia who is a spiritual cousin to “Mr. Robot’s” Elliot, played by Rami Malek.
“When we found out Snowden was a fan we had our social team welcome him to Twitter,” McCumber said. USA aims to stoke “Mr. Robot’s” momentum today with a showcase slot at New York Comic Con, which ought to be a geek love-fest for the New York-set series.
McCumber sees the session as the triumphant culmination of a series rollout that was markedly different from any other series in USA’s history — and a learning experience for all involved.
“When we first saw what we had in ‘Mr. Robot,’ we walked out of the screening room saying, ‘Wow here is something that is going to resonate culturally,’” McCumber said. “We felt really good about it but we knew we had to bring it to market in a different way.”
That started with a buzz-building campaign to get the pilot seen by digital-influencer types. USA was pleasantly surprised when the SXSW festival gave the pilot a screening slot on March 17 — more than three months before its June 24 linear premiere — and it wound up taking the fest’s audience award for TV.
USA’s marketing team relentlessly flogged the SXSW seal of approval as evidence that “Mr. Robot” was a different breed of drama for USA, which has long been known for its lighter dramedies and blue-sky actioners. On May 27, USA took the extraordinary step of making the pilot available for free through cable VOD and digital platforms spanning iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, Facebook, Xbox, Google Play, Yoand PlayStation to IMBb.com, Twitch, Crave Online, TheVerge.com and latina.com.
“Mr. Robot” was certainly not the first pilot to offer a pre-linear sneak peek online. But to distribute it so broadly a month prior to launch required a leap of faith on the part of execs at USA and Universal Cable Prods. that the exposure was more important than the potential cannibaliziing of tune-in ratings for the linear premiere. After a tough year ratings-wise for USA and other major cablers, the feeling was they faced an imperative to try something entirely new. McCumber is quick to credit USA senior VP Alex Sepiol with championing the property and working closely on Esmail in its development phase.
When it came to crafting the rollout strategy, McCumber said they took inspiration from the show itself.
“The idea of putting it out pre-linear on every platform we could get really came from the notion of ‘What would Mr. Robot do?’ Elliot would hack the system and get the pilot out there,” he said. “When we started to see the reaction from viewers and the overwhelmingly positive response, we knew we’d done the right thing.”
The show generated more than 3 million views in the pre-linear VOD window — exposure that was invaluable for driving “hey you gotta watch this show” chatter in mainstream and social media.
All told, “Mr. Robot’s” overall Nielsen averages for the 10 episodes of season one were OK, but not great by USA’s past standards. In live-plus-7, the show averaged 2.74 million viewers, including 1.35 million in adults 18-49 and 1.5 million in adults 25-54. That makes “Mr. Robot” the No. 3 new scripted cable series of the year to date, behind AMC’s “Fear the Walking Dead” and “Better Call Saul.”
But in the metrics that matter as much as Nielsen numbers to USA with a show like “Mr. Robot,” it continues to score even in its post-season. The show in recent weeks is generating about 700,000 VOD views per week on authenticated VOD platforms, for a total of more than 12 million to date (including the pre-linear release window).
On digital, it delivered 7.6 million video streams during its season run, higher than any other USA series in its debut season, with a higher engagement level than other USA series (15 minutes of viewing on average compared to six minutes). “Mr. Robot’s” official Facebook page racked up “likes” faster than any other USA series, with more than 515,000 (and counting) as of Friday, and more importantly, content associated with the show has been seen by 57.5 million Facebook users, per USA.
The sizzle for the show allowed USA to set a rich streaming pact for the series with Amazon that will kick in next spring as a lead-up to the launch of season two. That SVOD licensing coin goes a long way toward monetizing what the show lacks in pure Nielsen numbers. Moreover, by the laws of TV physics, the Amazon exposure coupled with continued critical buzz will add up to a viewership boost in season two.
Given the crowded landscape in TV and USA’s past struggles to expand the contours of its original series, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see McCumber taking a victory lap around the Javits Center today as New York Comic Con celebrates “Mr. Robot.” But like the hard-charging hackers of “Mr. Robot’s” society, the USA topper assures the mission of between-season marketing has only just begun.
“The job now is to keep that show in the zeitgeist,” McCumber said. “Now we have to figure out ways to give the viewers every opportunity to stay connected with the show in every possible way they want to interact with it.”