NBC has received a fair amount of buzz for being first out of the gate this year with an offer to watch the full pilot of one of its new fall shows, specifically Thursday-night comedy Community, starring Joel McHale (The Soup), Chevy Chase, and John Oliver (The Daily Show). What most people are fixated on is that NBC chose Facebook  to host the video rather than post it on NBC.com or the most obvious choice, Hulu, in which NBC is a founding partner.
Before we speculate as to why NBC did this, let's consider the experience of watching the pilot, which is as good a case study of misunderstanding social media as you're ever likely to find. The most significant issue arises before you've even begun: NBC asks you to "become a fan" of the show before you've watched the show! Has anyone at NBC ever been on Facebook, or any other social network? You "like" something after you've interacted with the content.
It's a pretty straightforward premise, but one that NBC botches right out of the gate. It's as if they were inspired by one of the show's first scenes. Before the episode's title credits, McHale's character meets the person who's clearly being set up to be his buddy, Abed, a young Muslim man with Asperger's. After Abed tells McHale's character, Jeff, his life story and then introduces himself, McHale says, "Nice to know you, and then meet you." That neatly sums up NBC's social-media strategy.
Worse, once you do become a fan, you're not taken directly to the pilot episode. You're still stuck on the preview page and have to click again to the pilot itself. I have to imagine Hulu would have created a more seamless experience. And when you do finally get to the pilot and press play, you're asked first if you want to share this with your friends. Nice to know you, and then meet you, indeed. I say to my friends all the time, "Hey, here's this thing I know nothing about but I want to recommend it to you." (Even dumber, NBC doesn't pop up that offer to recommend the pilot to friends after you've watched the program.)
I get it: NBC isn't posting this video out of altruism; it's market research in the guise of presenting NBC as a company that "gets the future." But surely there must have been some happy medium that wouldn't have depicted NBC as a pushy corporation desperate for me to like this show so much that I'd say I was a "fan" and recommend it to my friends before I'd set eyes on it. Which, when I think about it, is kind of like Joel McHale's character in Community, an entitled douche who's always taking the easy way out.
Although I didn't experience any problems watching the video--my picture was smooth and crisp--a quick perusal of wall comments reveals that plenty of people did. Again, this is something that NBC might have thought about in choosing Facebook as its host. Facebook is excellent at letting people share homemade, uploaded video, but it has no real experience serving up high-resolution, 25-minute episodes of a television show, like, say, Hulu, NBC.com, or even MySpace.
Another social-media misunderstanding was NBC blocking non-U.S. viewers from watching the Community pilot. I get it: The show is a U.S. show and NBC wants as clean an experience as possible in gauging viewer reaction to the pilot. It doesn't do NBC much good today if the show takes off in Belarus. But social networks obviously transcend geography, much the same way that global conglomerates such as GE, NBC's parent company, transcend geography. Hulu is U.S. only, but it's short-sighted of NBC to alienate so many in the global audience who could become fans--and paying customers--for its entertainment products.
All of this helps explain why Community has attracted only 10,492 fans as of this writing, after offering this exclusive, limited-time preview for two days. As for those low fan totals, perhaps NBC slightly outsmarted itself because I did rescind my "fan" status right after watching the show. The show's pretty good, mind you, and I will likely watch it again, but it didn't quite merit my public embrace of the program (if you want to do the same, scroll all the way to the bottom of the wall page and you can click to remove your fan status on the bottom left.)
NBC's choice of Facebook over its own properties--and if you've ever suffered through a Biggest Loser segment on The Today Show, you know how big a deal this is, because it goes against everything NBC seems to stand for in 2009--says a lot about what NBC and the other networks need from Hulu. Even in the thus-far meager fan numbers for Community, NBC is getting a treasure trove of data about who's watching, what they're saying, and what else they do and like and what kind of influencer they are among their peers. This is much harder to do at Hulu, which added some social-networking features five months ago, but which clearly can't compete with the massive audience and the broader mission of Facebook. Traditional TV networks are about attracting mass viewership and about parsing demographics, and Facebook gives NBC a deeper shot at doing so than anything else.
You still have a couple of days to watch Community , but when you do, also watch the sideshow that is NBC's poor understanding of community.