How NBC Got 10 Million People to Watch This Is Us Without Spoiling Its Big Twist

The viral upfront trailer definitely helped

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The 2016-17 TV season is only a few days old, but NBC's new shows are off to a solid start. Last night's debut of its promising new drama, This Is Us, drew an audience of 10 million, and a 2.8 rating in the 18-49 demo, which is the highest demo rating of any new fall show to date. That's a 33 percent jump in the demo over how Best Time Ever with Neil Patrick Harris performed in the same post-Voice time slot the first Tuesday of last season, and a 69 percent increase in total viewers.

Its The Voice lead-in (3.6 demo rating), certainly helped boost the numbers for the drama, which generated excitement among media buyers. But the show's premiere audience was also cultivated by its upfront trailer, which became a viral sensation in May, and a summer-long marketing campaign from NBC that managed to hook viewers.

Notably, the campaign succeeded without spoiling the premiere's big surprise—skip ahead to the next paragraph if you don't want to know what happened—that young couple Mandy Moore and Milo Ventimiglia, who spend much of the pilot preparing to give birth, are actually the parents of the three siblings featured on the show: Chrissy Metz, Justin Hartley and Sterling K. Brown (who was adopted by Moore and Ventimiglia after he was abandoned and brought to the hospital shortly after one of their triplets had died during childbirth). Going forward, the show will take place in both present day and the past, following Moore and Ventimiglia's journey as parents.

When the new shows were announced during the May upfronts, This Is Us was overshadowed by higher-profile projects like Lethal Weapon, 24: Legacy and Kiefer Sutherland's return to TV, Designated Survivor. Yet the upfront trailer for This Is Us was the one that broke out and became a surprise viral sensation, racking up 50 million Facebook views in just 11 days (its total views now stand at 105 million across all platforms).

"We were all very surprised," said the show's creator Dan Fogelman of the trailer. "It's a show about people and about heart. We have high hopes for the show, and that's it's going to do well, but it's not one that you expect to be beating Star Wars in trailer numbers."

Jared Goldsmith, svp, marketing strategy and digital, NBC Entertainment, said NBC's promo team was able to take Fogelman's "unbelievable" pilot and "craft a really compelling trailer that made these characters relatable and really come to life in that short period of time. I think the music played a big role in it. And I think having Milo's bare butt in it doesn't hurt!"

On Facebook, NBC was able to serve the trailer directly to fans of its last big family drama, Parenthood. "But what really stood out to us was the way that the people who watched the trailer started tagging their friends and their family and saying things like, 'This is going to be our next show' or 'I can't wait to watch this with you,'" said Goldsmith.

Thanks to the unexpected reaction to the trailer, Goldsmith and the marketing team suddenly found themselves with one of the most-buzzed new fall shows, and crafted a campaign playing off those parts of the trailer that had connected with viewers. "We got really forensic with the trailer to hone in on what the elements were that really worked in that spot, and used it in our ongoing promos and other materials," said Goldsmith.

For starters, "we knew that video, and longer-form video, would be a really big part of the ongoing campaign. You saw that play out in terms of how we used cable, and cinema advertising, and our outdoor advertising and other digital and social," he said. The team also targeted demos that had more interest in the trailer than his team would have guessed, including younger females.

In their analysis, the team determined that "the trailer, and the show as well, do a great job of taking these big moments [like childbirth] and these small moments [like the overweight sibling slipping off her earrings before stepping on a scale], and making them feel relatable," said Goldsmith.

That prompted them to release a fatherhood-centric promo just before Father's Day. "One of the things we saw from the trailer is that people responded to Milo's character's caring nature. We had another character who was in search of his biological father, and things like that really stood out in terms of these big moments," said Goldsmith.

While many networks wouldn't have been able to resist incorporating the twist into the campaign, NBC decided to steer clear after "a lot of discussion," said Goldsmith. There was a case to be made for revealing the twist to help This Is Us stand out among "all the noise of the fall season," but in the end, the enthusiastic response to the upfront trailer helped cement the case for secrecy. "That showed us that we were going to be able to break this show out without having to present that reveal," said Goldsmith.

Now that the twist has been made public, Goldsmith is counting on word-of-mouth to drive a post-premiere social push for the show. "There's going to be a lot of buzz and a lot of conversation after it first airs, and we think that helps propel the show forward and gives people other chances to want to go and discover it when they hear about something that happened," he said. "Those initial viewers will be able to drive a lot of that."

NBC will try to harness those conversations with a digital aftershow—the only one the network is doing for a scripted series this fall—available on the NBC app and on demand, and featuring Fogelman and the cast. "There's so much to digest and talk about, that seeing the show's creator and the cast be able dig into those themes, week to week, is going to be great to continue to spur conversation," said Goldsmith. "We've really got something here, and I think fans are going to continue to discover this and latch onto these characters in a way we really haven't seen before."

Meanwhile, NBC will continue to market the series without mentioning the twist. "We're still trying to really sell the concept of the show, and the ideas of family and parenting and how those things connect," Goldsmith said. "I don't know that in the beginning, you'll see us calling out this twist. It's going to be more organic in terms of how we present the stories of the characters," he said.

But the network won't be as reticent to spotlight Sunday's Emmy win for Brown, who was awarded for his role as Christopher Darden on The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. The team is "already" working phrases like "Emmy winner" into its marketing, said Goldsmith.

Now that Goldsmith and the marketing team have done their job in delivering that big premiere audience, it's up to Fogelman to keep those 10 million viewers engaged and coming back from more. The creator said he hasn't felt any pressure to alter his approach to the show or play up the elements of the trailer that drove up those viewing numbers.

"The directors, producers and I had a very clear sense of what the show was before the trailer," he said. "The good news with this show is, I've seen people watch the show itself and the reaction to the trailer is a really nice, distilled reaction to how people react to the show. So I don't think we're going to do anything differently."

@jasonlynch Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.