One of fall’s most-anticipated new series—especially for ad buyers—premieres tonight as ABC debuts A Million Little Things. And the network’s marketing campaign for the show is both leaning into the show’s parallels to This Is Us while also trying to differentiate it from hit NBC drama.
ABC is capping tonight’s premiere of the drama—in which a group of longtime Boston friends reexamine their lives after one of them (Ron Livingston) dies by suicide—by airing a PSA about suicide.
A Million Little Things is one of the few new broadcast shows this fall for which buyers have high hopes, with many of them comparing the show to This Is Us. “If that can catch on in a similar way and have strong compelling characters and storylines, I thought that had a lot of potential to be a hit,” said Maureen Bosetti, chief investment officer at Initiative.
ABC, meanwhile, points out that it was airing emotional adult dramas long before This Is Us broke out on NBC.
“We have a long history and a legacy of shows like this, whether it’s Thirtysomething or Brothers & Sisters, and so we had been looking for a show like that for a while,” said ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey. “And the fact that This Is Us has resonated so strongly encourages us, because it makes us feel like there is an audience for this kind of storytelling.”
Dungey continued, “I do feel like the two shows are very different, both in terms of the way the stories are told and the focus on which they are, but I’m excited. I think that there’s hopefully room for both in the landscape.”
A Million Little Things creator DJ Nash, who was inspired to write the series after the death of a friend, said the show has more in common with the 1983 film The Big Chill than the NBC hit drama. “I think This Is Us certainly paved the way and allowed us to do it, but the influences are much more strongly recognized in a movie like The Big Chill or even a show like Big Little Lies,” said Nash.
To that end, ABC’s campaign for A Million Little Things both plays up the similarities to and differences from This Is Us.
Like the NBC drama, A Million Little Things “is a very emotional, authentic show. However, it’s about friendship, so we’re really leaning into the friendship angle for this show and owning friendship in this campaign,” said Rebecca Daugherty, evp of marketing for ABC. “This Is Us is family, so it is different, even though it does tap into that unbelievable emotion. But this is the family you choose, not the family that you’re born into.”
ABC kicked off the campaign on Aug. 5, which was National Friendship Day. The following day, it blanketed the finale of The Bachelorette with a variety of show promos ranging from 10 seconds to 90 seconds in length.
The network’s out-of-home campaign covered 17 markets, featuring more than 100 teaser billboards with different “Friendship is … ” phrases. Two weeks ago, they all changed to feature a cast shot and the show’s title.
“ABC’s done a great job of promoting it [and] targeting it to the right audience—that This Is Us audience,” said Carrie Drinkwater, executive director, integrated investments at MullenLowe’s Mediahub.
One of the campaign’s key elements came from Nash himself, who convinced Dungey to run a PSA about suicide following tonight’s premiere.
The PSA features three cast members alongside Nash’s friend Mike Shinoda, from the band Linkin Park, and the widow of Nash’s late friend. “It speaks about how there are options and you’re not alone,” said Nash.
“It’s not something we normally do,” said Dungey, who used some of the time earmarked for promos during the hour to air the PSA. “We felt like it was valuable and it was worth spending the promo time in order to do that.”
In a year where several big names, including Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade, have died by suicide, the network “felt like it was very important to underscore the seriousness with which we’re taking this and to encourage people who are needing help to seek help,” said Dungey. ABC will share the PSA on its social channels after the premiere.
The suicide that occurs in the pilot “is a jumping-off point to our story. It doesn’t in any way glamorize suicide,” said Dungey. “That’s really important to us, and we’re working with the right people in that space to make sure that the messages that we’re bringing across are hopefully going to be helpful ones.”
Nash said that when he filmed the pilot last spring, several crew members pulled him aside to talk about how the show resonated with them or their families. “I thought I was telling my story,” he said. “I think what we’re telling is all of our stories.”