ABC is taking a big gamble this fall, betting that a series of 30-second, one-joke ad spots has the potential to fill up 30 minutes of prime time.
By taking Geico car insurance’s popular cavemen marketing campaign and expanding it into a full-length sitcom called, yes, “Cavemen,” ABC is hoping to catch up with its rivals, who have been trouncing the network during prime time.
It’s an uphill battle for a cast of characters who haven’t yet invented the wheel.
The new series, helmed by ad genius Joe Lawson (who created most of Geico’s popular ads, including the gecko and celebrity voice-over spots) will be going up against established hits like “The Office,” “30 Rock,” “My Name Is Earl” and “Desperate Housewives.”
“The fact that it’s a one-joke premise is a hurdle. Sometimes what you like for 30 seconds doesn’t necessarily translate to 30 minutes,” says Entertainment Weekly correspondent Tim Stack. “We have no real attachment to these people in the commercials. We don’t know their names, we don’t know who they are. And none of the actors are recognizable, because they’re all under makeup.”
The advertisement-to-sitcom strategy has been used before, with mixed results. “Max Headroom” (on ABC in 1987) and 1988’s “Hey Vern, It’s Ernest” made the jump from marketing campaigns to television shows.
“Neither one of them were big hits,” says Robert Thompson, head of Syracuse University’s Institute for Popular Television. “`Max Headroom’ became a cult classic, but it never reached hit status. Ernest became a movie character, but never made it on TV.”
The folks behind “Cavemen” are hoping to avoid such by pitfalls by generating plenty of summer buzz to counter the momentum of the popular shows that will enter the fall lineup with a few seasons behind them. Already, “Cavemen” is the most-talked about show coming out of the television upfronts, the annual announcement of new shows by the networks. And the popularity of the ads themselves has spawned their own following, including a series of Internet sites devoted to the Cavemen’s lives.
One such site, www.cavemanscrib.com, allows Web surfers to infiltrate the cavemen’s swanky apartment and play with their belongings. Another, upwithcavemen.com, is a mock civil rights home page accusing Geico of advertising prejudice. There’s even Internet speculation that the cavemen, judging by their posh apartment and stylish clothes, are gay.
But pre-premiere buzz only gets a new show so far.
“Out of the gates, this thing gets a lot of attention,” explains Thompson. “In television, though, that only translates to how it opens. If people don’t like it, all the buzz in the world, all summer long, isn’t going to matter. Look at all the buzz Katie Couric got before she started at CBS News. That translated for what, about a week?”
“Internet buzz is usually good,” adds Stack. “But it can sometimes backfire. Maybe no one will show up, like what happened with `Snakes on a Plane.’”
Another element the show’s creators are hyping is the idea that “Cavemen” will be an allegory for racial tensions in America. Since the cavemen are a minority, they will face prejudice and rejection in their everyday lives. Early clips of the show include references to this issue, and even discussions of it. It’s not the usual sitcom fare, but the show has the advantage of operating in a vacuum.
“You can deal with the notion of stereotypes and language and bigotry, and do it in a completely safe zone,” says Thompson. “You are talking about a minority of exactly zero people. There are no cavemen left. You can’t offend a caveman lobby group.”