Season 3 Opener at Comic-Con: Risky PR Move?

Written by: Ashley Crawley


Were you one of the 4,000 fans, media and curious onlookers in Ballroom 20 for the Outlander panel at San Diego Comic-Con? If you were, then *slow clap* for your place among the fortunate few who were surprised with an advance screening of the Outlander Season 3 premiere seven weeks before its scheduled September 10th debut.  SEVEN WEEKS. While my initial reaction to this move was an emotional one driven by the green-eyed monster, I quickly moved to an intellectual one marked by a lot of head scratching and “say whaaaa?”. As an integrated marketing communications professional, my brain is now locked firmly on one question: STARZ, what’s the strategy behind this all-in move?

I’ve never quite understood the network’s often-disjointed efforts to promote Outlander to its existing and potential fan base, as I’ve detailed previously here and, more recently, here. Their lack of noticeable marketing and PR to support what is, arguably, their show with the most ardent fan base has turned “The World of Outlander” into a virtual ghost town.

In the past two weeks, however, I’ve taken to barking like an excitable seal at the PR about-face STARZ has pulled off. After months of silence, they offered a few brilliant and well-integrated nuggets to a fan base who just trudged through the one-year mark of Droughtlander. The professional side of this die-hard fan recognized the early makings of an effective drip marketing campaign, and I thought my heart was gonna burst with an audible “finally!” sigh of relief.


The term “drip marketing” comes from the irrigation process of dripping water onto the root or soil of crops over a period of time. Let’s all put on our Fraser family farming hats for this one. Think about a tomato plant. Dumping a bucket of water directly onto the plant overwhelms it, and it drowns and dies without ever having the chance to produce a juicy, full tomato. Give the plant enough drops of water at the root level over a sustained period, however, and it will find the nourishment it needs to ripen without harm.

Drip marketing follows the same logic. In the case of Outlander, feeding the fandom content at well-timed intervals offers STARZ, in my humble opinion, the most strategic opportunity to serve existing and potential new fans the fruit of Outlander and its highly anticipated arrival. Drip, drip until the welcomed flood of Sept. 10th.

Here's what STARZ did. First, we received the premiere date delivered via stunning key art, with the added bonus of a filmed version that brought the story and emotion behind the art to life before ending on the static image.



Drip.

One week later—even though we all anticipated an arrival timed to San Diego Comic-Con, as is done frequently for big-budget TV shows and films—that powerful and climactic trailer (or, as Outlander pal and blogger, Karen, put it, the chime heard ‘round the world) arrived that placed our hearts squarely in our throats.



Drip.

Flash to Comic-Con, where festival goers enjoyed the sounds of bag pipes, kilted “Highlanders”and, most remarkably, a first-hand experience of THE PRINT SHOP (per fellow editor Janet’s decree that it must be capitalized from here forward).



Images courtesy of Sydney Bucksbaum

Sweet, sweet driiiiiiip.

Delish! That, folks, is experiential marketing at its best. Take the single most important moment of an 800+ page book—one whose screen adaptation has the potential to define the ENTIRE season’s fate in the eyes of a fan—and bring it life in every sense of the word. Just short of piping in the paper, ink and machine smells of an 18th century working print shop, it truly provided all the feels. Those not onsite in San Diego benefited from continual updates and fodder via the network’s social channels, including a light-hearted look at Jamie and Claire’s road to reunion at the festival via their Pop! alter egos.


All this before we ever arrived at the official Outlander cast and crew panel, which begged the question—what ace do they have up their sleeve for the main event?

A condensed Q&A with cast and crew followed by a screening of the full Season 3 premiere episode, that’s what. Wait... the flood cometh already?

STARZ's current mood

To be clear, this is not a “hey that’s not fair, what about me and my million other Outlander pals who want to see it” moment. This is a "how in the frank do you plan to roll into the promotional blitz that accompanies fall season premieres having already played all your cards?“ Here are some of my professional and fan concerns.

Controlling the fan base

When it comes to Outlander, I’m the breed of TV watcher that appreciates the comfort of my own home—feet up, libations and nosh at-the-ready and noise kept to a minimum. By contrast, the inhabitants of Ballroom 20 took in the premiere under the watchful eye of armed security carrying infrared detectors to seek out those ignoring the “no mobile phone use please” rule mandated before the episode started. Granted, San Diego Comic-Con is not for the faint of heart—upwards of 200,000 people, long lines, 12-hour days, boxing out to get seats for your favorite panel, then waiting possibly eight hours for said panel to start (as was the case for our amazing Outlander Cast Street Squad). The point being that the fearless 4,000 (minus the handful of media who enjoy more agreeable conditions) were rewarded, as they should be, for the hefty ticket price and sweat equity they threw into the game for the love of Outlander. It’s somewhat like enduring steerage conditions to earn a first-class ticket on the Queen Mary. For that, I commend and congratulate you.

But how does STARZ plan to control the fan base for the next seven weeks? Yes, they were asked not to take photos, videos, text, send tweets, post to Facebook, dispatch carrier pigeons, etc. But it’s bound to happen. Heck, even Diana Gabaldon offered all of Ballroom 20 safe refuge on her Facebook page.



The restraint shown in the first few days will wear out quickly, and the millions still in the dark will feel like they’ve inadvertently jaywalked into oncoming traffic trying to avoid getting run over by a spoiler. By September, we’ll likely know all thanks to what my blogger pal Holly termed accidental osmosis. “So don’t read the spoilers then! Avoid the fan pages.” Advice I’ve seen a zillion times, and it’s only day three. But asking people to turn off the only connection they have to Outlander in the off-season—their fellow fandom and part of their Droughtlander coping mechanism—is like asking you to ignore your closest friends for the next two months in the middle of a personal crisis.


Controlling the media

You know what’s riskier than an Outlander fan with insider knowledge? An Outlander fan who also happens to be a member of the press, complete with a verified platform and baked-in audience of millions with which to share all. EW’s Outlander go-to gal, Lynette Rice—who might or not might have had special privilege to do so—was LIVE TWEETING details of the episode from Ballroom 20.


Several hours later brought daylight and a few “recaps” (like this one from Variety) that either disclaimed spoilers or attempted to write a piece avoiding them all together. Good luck with that. Fervent book readers know what’s up even when you think you’re exercising discretion.

Outlander needs the press, for sure. All TV shows do. But this variety of publicity comes usually in a layered manner leading up to the actual premiere date. Outlets are sent advanced screeners of the first several episodes so they can offer fans a sneak peek of what’s in store for the new season. The cast goes on a press tour to ensure that you can’t go online, pick up a magazine, or turn on your digital devices or TV without their reminding you that Sept. 10 is upon us, and it’s not too late to give the show a try if you have yet to do so.

Not all media outlets that matter to Outlander attended Friday night’s panel, so you’ll still see premiere week reviews of the first episode and teasers of the subsequent ones. Even though the rise of streaming services over cable television has left us with year-round programming, the fall season launch still reins supreme. So while the month of April saw Outlander Season 2 premiering in good company alongside only a handful of other shows, it’ll now contend for the press spotlight against close to 50 shows also premiering in the same month. I imagine that the media—whose job it is to provide a first, or at least fresh, take on a topic—might head into September viewing this seven weeks-early screening through a stale lens of “That’s been done. What else is trending?”

To Premiere Event or not to Premiere Event?

That is most certainly a question. The intent of premiere week has always been to, well, premiere the episode for media and fans.  Sound familiar? It appears as though STARZ may have just used Comic-Con as a stand-in to avoid having to expend limited money and resources to do the dog-and-pony show all over again in September. It’s quite possible the swelled production budget of filming a show for ONE WHOLE YEAR combined with the ever-increasing costs to execute a smart presence at a venue as large and important as Comic-Con left little in the STARZ marketing wallet.


I do think they’ll still hold a media preview event with Papa Bear Moore, Queen D and the Fab Five strutting their stuff on the red carpet—because that’s the bare minimum of any publicity effort. What remains to be seen, however, is how STARZ will factor fan participation into this media-focused event. Because, again, they just did that.

Growing the fan base

Outlander marketing, advertising, PR—you name it—is all designed to reach new fans. Please don’t read from this that I take for granted the existing fan base. Not a chance. Clearly, I’m with you—as evidenced by devoting all my free time to a fan blog dedicated to the show. Sustaining a show’s squealing loyalists matters, hence showing the full-length episode to a room full of them. But what about the casual viewer, or the one who has yet to sample the goods? Long-standing fans would (and have) watch a single episode 17 times forward and backward, standing on their head, underwater, etc. Like our own twisted Dr. Seuss' Green Eggs and Ham moment, we would watch it here or there, we would watch it everywhere.

What I’m struggling to grasp here is how the advance screening achieves the adoption of new viewers. I can only assume via word-of-mouth, as I’ve said before that Outlander fans are powerful influencers. I worry, though, that this enthusiastic sharing will feel to newcomers the same as when you're that sober guy who comes late to the drunken party full of inside jokes. (Hint: not well.)


I’m willing to be completely wrong, and hope I am. Hey, the last time we endured a great build-up to an epic unveiling was a little episode you might have seen once or twice called “The Wedding.” As you’ll of course recall, our anticipation was at an immeasurable high when 12 minutes in Jamie and Claire sealed the day in a manner eliciting a collective “wait... that's it?!” And you know what? It wasn’t. The wizards behind Outlander had crafted a careful, emotional and downright unbeatable payout to all that waiting that was just on the other side of the assumed one. Who’s to say that there might not be similar PR magic at work here?

What I know for certain, though, is that had STARZ shown only the first 10 minutes of the first episode (likely the Battle of Culloden)—or hell, even a second trailer—I’d call it a sure-fire win.  It would have accomplished the goal of whetting the appetite of media and fans while still leaving room for more hype as we steamroll closer to September 10th. But showing the entire episode? It’s a strategy I’m not sure this marketing gal understands completely.



What do you think of STARZ’s decision to show the entire first episode at Comic-Con? 
Risky or smart? 

41 comments

  1. Thank you for your insight as a professional. As mere "home based" fan I agree 100%. I have loved the books for 20+ years and I mostly love the show. The attendees get to see the cast panel live, which I thought was the reason to go, and as usual I expected them to get something extra. As you suggested that might be the first 10 min or maybe new opening sequence with credits but it would be something that would be shared with the rest of the fandom within a week or two. To show the entire episode to me feels kind of like there was a big school dance but only certain kids were invited and everyone else had to stand outside the room and listen to them laughing and dancing. Then they come out of the dance and talk about what a great party it was and they all found out a big secret, that everyone has been dying to know, but they can't tell you because someone will be telling the secret in 7 weeks. Then they get in groups in and whisper about it amongst themselves for the next 7 weeks. I'm always excited for the people who get to go to these thing but this is the first time I have felt hurt. For now I'm staying off most of the fan sites and just putting OL on the back burner until 9/10.

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    1. What a great analogy! Someone brought up that they wondered how those who had spent all the time, money, energy to sit with the cast in the room felt when they only got 20 minutes with them. Yes, they got the episode... but they will see the episode for sure -- a few times -- whereas time with the cast not as much. That was a comment I saw elsewhere and wondered about that from a fan in the room's perspective.

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  2. Loved the Dr.Seuss analogy. I needed a laugh this morning. Time will tell if Starz made an error showing the first episode at Comic-Con. I wasn't one of the fortunate few who got the surprise of their lives on Friday, but I wish them well. As for me, I'd rather see the premiere on September 10, like we were promised. It's more fun because you can have Twitter parties and enjoy the show knowing that everyone is watching it with you. I just hope the ratings won't suffer for letting the genie out of the bottle 7 Weeks early! Slainte mhath!!

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    1. I don't believe the ratings will suffer, but do wonder what they might still have up their sleeve after all the reveal this week. Thank you so much for reading and for weighing in!

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  3. Love your professional analysis, Ashley! With my limited experience, months ago I resigned myself to just take whatever STARZ drips out. Like your delicious homegrown tomatoes, I'll continue to soak up anything and everything Outlander, not even caring if it's a spoiler at this point.

    Great job by the Outlander Street Squad in San Diego! So happy that they got the ComicCon 'bonus' of seeing S3E1, and due to their perseverance, from the front row no less!

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  4. I don't think they risked too much, as the first episode is not the most anticipated episode of the series. Also, the first episode is not the linchpin of the continuing saga, unless it is the one where Claire discovers that Jamie lived through the battle. If so, that is the end of Frank for good.

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  5. Ashley .. as fellow PR/Marketing person, you spoke my mind perfectly! I do not begrudge our friends that saw it in any way AT ALL. To be honest, if I were actually there, I probably would have preferred a longer panel because in the end, I will watch that episode ay least 100 times, but I only have this one opportunity to be this close to all of the actors and hear them give insight and see their personas on display and interacting. But like you, I don't understand the move. The fan base spent a week joyfully drawing together, sharing momentum and excitement with each new drip.. gleefully sharing on FB pages and retweeting on twitter feeds like the dutiful marketing wheel cogs we are. Living vicariously through the comic con attendees and squeeing together over pics videos and posts. Then BOOM. It was like a lightning bolt cracked, splitting the fan base and fracturing that momentum and creating a negative undercurrent with this tide of publicity.I get they viewed it like a premiere.. but it is much too early for that, especially considering how long droughtlander is AND the relative short time the fan base had to take in the publicity wave beforehand. Like you, when I saw the extended time for the panel.. I assumed an extended sneak peak.. Possibly the first 15 minutes .. the battle maybe. That would have beeen perfect in my book. Plus it would have given a fuller time for the panel and time to comback to them after for applause.. farewells etc. That is what I expected TBH. Maybe as we get closeer, they are planning a sneak peak for the fan base.. like a five minute clip to throw them some type of bone... Great piece Ashley

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    1. Angela, thank you so much for reading and commenting! A lot of people are misinterpreting the post as a rail against some of the fandom getting to see it early and some still in the dark. It's more a "huh, interesting" moment of pondering the strategy behind it and wondering what else they might still have up their sleeve given everything thrown out last week.

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  6. Not being a professional marketing person, I'm not sure of the professional why's and wherefore's of a marketing roll-out. As a long time book fan and someone who loves the series, I couldn't care less about spoilers or the feeding frenzy of around a few drips of publicity.But, I do wonder if this was some kind of hail Mary to stand out against the doledroms of summer, the end of Droughtlander and against the tide of fall series premiere publicity. I thought the panel was silly - while Jenna Dewan seems to be a legit fan, the whole thing with the Truth or Dance was a waste of time. Having Diana, Ron and Meryl there was a waste of time. I thought it was funny that Sophie Skelton made an aside comment to Ric Rankin about being dancing monkeys - because that's how it felt. I think the worst part about showing the whole of episode 301 was the reduced panel discussion time, combined with the dancing monkey display. But, as a fan from afar, none of it either makes me more of less a fan or will affect my viewing of the series itself.

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    1. I agree about the dancing .. with such a shortened time .. they should have had a more robust panel there. I do like having Ron Maril and Diana there though. They can give perspectives the actors can't (if given time to give them lol)

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  8. I like what Linda offered above. My first thought to answer your question Ashley, is: it was a brilliant marketing move because it created a buzz and because perhaps no one has done exactly that before at Comic-Con

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    1. Really? Other shows and films have done it before. I just wonder why STARZ opted to do it. I do think it's in replacement of premiere week madness they've hosted before. But definitely always willing to be wrong. Thanks for reading and commenting!

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  9. The casual therefore new viewer Outlander hopes to snag with drip rollouts probably won't be affected by this screening since that person doesn't follow the websites or ComiCon that closely, if at all. The press, always hungry for copy, will cover the premier as it always does, but these are small time specialized outlets not the big time. A picture and a mention, much less a spread, in the New York Times or the Other big city newspapers would be the big splash. Again, not sure that those critics were even aware of the screening. In the LA Times and NY Times only Hall H got attention. With new series debuting it will be difficult to get attention. Spot ads over time on major outlets, and long haul survival like The Americans are the best bet for viewer attention.

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    1. Claudia - love this! Great insight. Appreciate you weighing in. I thought the same about media - even if the major outlets were there, the notion that they were covering the panel in Ballroom 20 would only be if they were Outlander fans. Paid advertising will definitely follow. Do you think they'll forego a premiere week event?

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  10. I thought it was brilliant! Just makes me even more excited to see the premiere on Sept 10. I don't begrudge any fans who were lucky enough to see it after all the time and money spent at SDCC. I also haven't heard of a single fan or press rep who left because they didn't want to see the episode early :))). Thank you for the article and your perspective'

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    1. Laura, thanks for reading and weighing in! I definitely don't think it wasn't fair. The fans there definitely deserved special treatment for the energy they put in to being there. Would 10 minutes of the first episode have accomplished that, though? That's what I wonder.

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  11. Maybe so, maybe no :))) I was watching the live stream on Jenna Tatum's instagram story and I will admit I got so excited and even teary eyed thinking "Oh my gosh, We are gonna get to see this!!!" Then, alas, fade to black...Darn it! So I then ravaged every spoiler I could find to get my "fix" and I am prepared to wait impatiently. Even knowing the info I do, I am still so PUMPED to get to see my beloved Outlander when it comes on!!!

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    1. OH, absolutely! Verra excited indeed. Just wonder what, and if, STARZ will do any other big stunt as we head into September.

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  12. Maybe so, maybe no :))) I was watching the live stream on Jenna Tatum's instagram story and I will admit I got so excited and even teary eyed thinking "Oh my gosh, We are gonna get to see this!!!" Then, alas, fade to black...Darn it! So I then ravaged every spoiler I could find to get my "fix" and I am prepared to wait impatiently. Even knowing the info I do, I am still so PUMPED to get to see my beloved Outlander when it comes on!!!

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  13. Didn't they also show the first episode of Season 1 to the fans in 2014? If so, how is this different?

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    1. It is often to done to preview a pilot -- or series premiere -- but is not quite as common for an existing show. Movies do it sometimes. I just wonder if showing the first 10 minutes, or behind the scenes footage, or a trailer exclusive for that room would have done the same.

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  15. They need media, all media was on SDCC that weekend... they did something bold to catch their attention not precisely for the fans but for the media who still see Outlander like a dispatchable romance for mid age white women. Is it risk? yes. We'll see if it was worth it.

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    1. All media was on SDCC, but were they on Ballroom 20? There's so much to cover at this massive venue. But maybe they were. We'll definitely see if it was worth it. Either way, we get to see something on Sept. 10th and that excites me. Confused by marketing? Perhaps. Certain on my love for Outlander whenever it airs? Absolutely. Thanks for reading and commenting!

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    1. We can be in the thieves hole of confusion together. :) Thanks for reading!

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  17. I think it was a nice reward for those fans who spent a lot of time/money for the event. I don't think it was necessary and like others 10mins would have sufficed. It does have an element of desperation attached. Sort of. It would have been taken differently if GOT did it bc they have nothing to prove. Their numbers are enormous. What will they do now?? Who knows. After 9/10 it won't matter anyway.

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    1. Such valid points! Desperation is an interesting thought. Everything was a home run and then all of the sudden, it felt like that excited toddler telling a story without taking a breath "and... and... and... and..."
      Thanks for reading and commenting!

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  18. I have neither the money nor the ability to attend ComiCon and so don't begrudge those who got to see S3, Ep. 1. Neither do I feel deprived. I don't think many of those who attended will go around talking about it either in order to keep it a surprise for the rest of us. I'm happy for everyone who got to see the episode and who also saw the cast members. I know they'll remember this for a very long time. I was one of those who did see S1, Ep. 1 on FB in the summer of 2014 when Starz was promoting their new show; it was the beginning of my love affair with Outlander! Whatever Starz motivation for showing the first episode, I can hardly wait to see it on September 10th in my own home on my own TV! I will find a way to watch it while in Scotland on Amazon Prime in October too!

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    1. Trudy,
      In total agreement about feeling joy for those who got to see it... just more so curious about what the marketing idea behind was it, and what's left to do when September rolls around. Maybe nothing, and that's the answer. I can tell you how to watch it in Scotland! I learned from my fellow blogger, Anne. Pay for a VPN connection for a month. That allows you to choose a location in the U.S. from which to connect, then you can stream it on STARZ as you would at home.

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  19. Like you I'm not sure why STARZ decided on this strategy and if it's a good one. It certainly was a frugal choice but it caters to the already loyal fan base, those already planning their snacks for September 10th. Certainly a great reward for those who were fortunate enough to attend SDCC, which I was not but c'est la vie. My thought is this: I have a pretty big network of friends, acquaintances and coworkers who have NEVER HEARD OF OUTLANDER! I'm so sad for them. It seems to me that STARZ would be better off and their money better spent by reaching out to the Outlander deprived. Wouldn't a bit of print and major network advertising go a long way? For that matter why target those of us too cheap to buy the no ads version of the games we play on our phones? I mean just one glimpse of Jamie and most would be at least intrigued. They could use the scene from the broken mill!
    What I do know is that if I had waited, elbowed, glowed in the heat (since I don't sweat), and was bursting with excitement to be in Ballroom 20 I would have been quite disappointed. Even if the same inane questions are asked ("What do you really wear under your kilt?" "Did you like the food in South Africa?" "Is it torture to do the sexy scenes with Sam with that stupid modesty sock?"...wait, did I say that outloud?...) it's less about the actual answers and more about spending time with the cast you love; it's about seeing how they interact with the crowd and each other because it just gives us more reasons to love them.
    Only time will tell if this was a good PR move.
    I rarely comment on these pages but you got me really thinking about it so, thanks!

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    1. Shari,
      Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment! I wondered about that same thing... about the limited time Ballroom 20 goers got with the cast after waiting all the time because they were rewarded with the first episode. I've seen a couple say they'd have been fine waiting until Sept. 10 to get more time with the cast. But either way, they saw it, I'm still wondering about the strategy behind it and what STARZ might have up their sleeve. Time will tell!

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  20. In 2014 comic con was much closer to the season premier, which was August 9th. Only a couple of weeks til everyone else could see it.

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    1. Exactly! And they aired Season 1B premiere at an event in LA, but also only a couple weeks before. We shall see how it pays off! Either way, I'll be glued to my screen on Sept. 10th. Thank you so much for reading and commenting!

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  21. After reading this and then sleeping on it, I decided to comment. I think it will make me feel better! I totally agree with you Ashley and most everyone here, but...I really just don't get it! I could see a surprise of 15-20 min sneak peek, but the whole kit and caboodle? I had loads of changing emotions, I'd be reading silently for a few minutes then out loud I'd say "and another thing..." venting my frustrations to my most patient husband. I'm not one for spoilers. If I've not read or watched a book or movie I make it a must to stay away from media so I won't ruin it for myself. That being said I'm not down on anyone that likes spoilers it's a personal choice. After having been with this group I did begin reading the books and that has been wonderful! I read Voyager then immediately got the audiobook and listened to it! Fantastic book and so far my fav with exception of Outlander of course. So, like ya'll, I know what the story is but I don't know how they've put it together. I'm excited to see how it will play out! As I was getting ready for bed last night I remembered a tweet that Ron Moore tweeted way back, this isn't a quote, I just remember someone asking him for spoilers of season 3. He responded, saying something like you only get to watch it for the first time once. So, saying all that I only get to see it for the first time of many once. I can wait for September 10, it won't be easy but it is what it is! Thanks for listening!��

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    1. You only get to watch it a first time once - I love that! I hadn't seen that before, so thank you. So fitting. I'm glad you read and commented. Thank you!

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  22. personally I would have rather watched it at home and been able to record it. that way I would be able to watch it as many times as I wanted.

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    1. No shame in that! That's my MO too. The app is a beautiful thing.

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