The other day a friend and I were talking about what a great self-promoter Mindy Kaling is. We weren’t talking about her negatively, understand, we just were bringing it up as a fact of her career. The friend, who doesn’t follow TV business reporting (and a good thing too) was still aware that Kaling and her show, The Mindy Project, have been promoted like mad literally since before it was even picked up. She’s in the news, she’s in the columns, she’s the subject of articles and profiles and think pieces about what she means for women, for rom-coms, for leads of colour and leads who aren’t conventionally telegenic.
There’s an obvious comparison here to Lena Dunham and Girls, but the hype for Girls was rather slow-building and, in my experience, followed the extremely positive advance buzz for the show itself. Kaling’s show got respectful but not ecstatic reviews (good reviews for a pilot; most pilots don’t make anyone ecstatic) and she built it into a media event almost on her own before Fox’s publicity machine got rolling.
I was in with the conventional wisdom in thinking the pilot had promise as a a rom-com for TV (or a fantasy of inserting a relatively “normal” person into the world of a rom-com), though I also wonder if Fox mightn’t have done better to place more of a bet on its other new comedy for the fall, Ben and Kate, a more solid pilot that seems like it could do better in Mindy‘s time slot. (The premiere ratings were soft for both Mindy and Ben and Kate, but the latter’s ratings may actually have been a mite better relative to its time period.) What interests me is that Kaling used the tools at her disposal in much the way that an author does – getting herself into the news, getting her project into the news, building herself up as a media star. I’m not sure she would have gotten her own show without creating that kind of visibility for herself.
She certainly got some attention on The Office, but like most of the writer-actors (except B.J. Novak), her part was fairly small. And NBC had enough doubts about her viability as a star that they passed on the pilot idea. Normally, that would have been it for her pilot, except that Kaling had built up a media profile that went beyond her role on that show and that network. To escape from the relative obscurity that comes from being part of a large ensemble, she used Social Media™, magazine writing, and other devices to increase her prominence in the public eye, without making it look like she was trying to grandstand or jockey for extra time on the show. I wonder if Fox would have taken the pilot if she hadn’t been doing that kind of work, particularly with Twitter, to make people aware of her beyond The Office.
And while that kind of media saturation has its limits – as with Deadline’s Breaking In posts, there are only so many The Mindy Project posts one can get through per day – it may be more tolerable than media hype that seems 100% driven by the network. When you go down to the subway and see someone’s face staring back at you all the time, or when they’re on every talk show at once, backlash is inevitable; we know this person is being shoved on us. (At best, the hype-ee can be someone we sorta kinda tolerate like Alex O’Loughlin, but a star, never.) Self-generated hype can at least be, by comparison, somewhat subtle: it doesn’t necessarily even matter if the star-to-be mentions the project on Twitter all the time, as long as she amuses us and reminds us of her existence. The overall pattern is still the same: the show starts with a lot of hype, and then it subsequently may or may not live up to it. (In this case, probably not unless the first week numbers hold for a while.) But if there’s a perception that the star was forced on us, it may be harder for us to tolerate them. It’s the old rule that we’re less willing to accept advertising if we’re too aware of it as advertising.
What I guess I’m getting at is that while Old Media rules still mostly apply in making a star or a hit – a TV star is often somebody promoted up from a supporting part or someone you’ve seen before in a more prestigious medium, like film – there may be some New Media components to creating the perception that someone is a star in the making. Mindy Kaling is a TV star now, in part, because she was shrewd and effective in using New Media tools (plus some Old Media publicity) to make us aware of her as someone who was destined for bigger things.
And I think that’s going to be more important in the future. Just as self-promotion has become an unavoidable part of an author’s life (few writers can depend on a publisher to give create a lot of publicity; they have to do it themselves), well-thought-out self-promotion may become an important part of getting noticed in a fragmented media world, building the perception that the person is a star worth taking a risk on. I’m not saying Twitter accounts are going to lead directly to a TV show. (For one thing, Twitter might be replaced by something else in a few years. For another thing, Mindy Kaling first had to take the step of getting a job on a major network show; she didn’t just go from Twitter to Fox.) But as there are fewer bankable stars and old-school publicity campaigns become less effective, self-promotion may be the way for performers to show that they are, at least, potential stars with a coherent public image and an ability to attract a following. Imagine if the guy who played Gunther from Friends had had Twitter; we might now know him as something more than “the guy who played Gunther.”