Friday Night Lights premiered to great reviews three years ago. The story of a football-obsessed Texas town was praised for its realistic portrayal of lives in the American working and middle classes, which is a surprisingly hard thing to find these days on American television.
But so is an audience.
The critically acclaimed but little-watched drama was on the brink of cancellation until satellite-TV provider DirecTV recently threw the show a fiscal Hail Mary.
"It seemed fairly certain the show would be canceled," says series writer Jason Katims. "And what happened was, through what I consider to be a stroke of genius, they came up with this idea."
DirecTV was looking for a cheap way to bring an exclusive show to its lineup; NBC had a good show that wasn't making any money.
So DirecTV bought the rights to air the new season of Friday Night Lights first, before NBC did. And the network got money to prop up a program that was otherwise doomed.
The show's third season recently completed its run on DirecTV and has now begun airing, starting from the new season's first episode, on NBC.
Product Placement? Just Part Of The Rescue Package
In a recent episode of the show, Landry, the smart and sensitive benchwarmer for the Dillon Panthers, helps Tyra, the one-time bad girl trying to make good, with her college entrance essay. He also manages to defer some of the show's production costs along the way:
Landry: "Can you explain why every paragraph has to tie back into Applebee's?"
Tyra: "'Cause I use it as a metaphor! It works."
In fact, everything on the show ties back to Applebee's ... or Gatorade, or Vaseline for Men. According to Katims, integrating products into shots and storylines has become part of his job.
"We feel like we want to do everything in our power to keep the show going," he says.
It seems to be working: Between the product placement, the DirecTV deal and some production belt-tightening, Friday Night Lights is getting another crack at finding an audience beyond its cult fan base.
But will that fan base be alienated now that subscribers have already had a chance to see the season on DirecTV?
Thinking Small: Creating Cult Buzz With DirecTV
Alan Sepinwall, a television critic at the Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J., says similar things have happened before — though not often.
"They've created this odd situation which really only has precedent [with] shows that originally aired in England, like Dr. Who, and then came here where the entire season was available to download in advance," he says. "So I think that a lot of the hardcore Friday Night Lights fans have found a way to see it."
The hope is that those fans will proselytize on the show's behalf. Eric Shanks of DirecTV points out that the show is now getting two sets of reviews and double the press. This, he hopes, could turn out to be the TV equivalent of something that already works very well in the movie industry.
"It is awards season right now, and there is a huge amount of buzz for movies that are in very limited release," says Shanks. "When they win awards, those movies become hugely popular."
The show's writers, including Katims, would probably accept "slightly popular." He's seen too many good shows get canceled before their time.
"If this experiment works for us and can also be an answer for other shows that are really good but struggling to find an audience, that would be an amazing thing to be part of," he says.
Meanwhile, he'll hope that the NBC run is good enough to allow him to keep a show going that he — and at least a few other people — love.
Even if that also means you can expect more characters driving to Applebee's and conspicuously chugging Gatorade.