Comic-Con Turning Away Some TV Cos.

When Comic-Con began 38 years ago in San Diego, it was just a small show for comic book collectors and science-fiction freaks.

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When Comic-Con began 38 years ago in San Diego, it was just a small show for comic book collectors and science-fiction freaks. By last year, it attracted a crowd of 125,000, including enough TV networks and producers that now the show’s organizers, fearful that Comic-Con will lose its original flavor, are deliberately limiting the number of TV-related companies they’ll allow to attend. They’ve also refused to give several networks and studios bigger booths.

This year, when the show happens July 24-27, the exhibit floor will have approximately 14 TV-related booths, up from 12 one year ago. But space is at a premium.

“We’ve been trying to expand our footprint on the floor and there’s a waiting list,” said Neal Tiles, head of G4, which will again broadcast live from its location. “You have to basically wait until someone cancels their booth space to even have a chance to expand your presence there.”

Also limited are the number of panels that conference executives will turn over to networks and studios to showcase their content, as organizers look to preserve diversity and some semblance of the event’s roots.

“It would probably not be difficult to have every room filled with just television programming,” said David Glanzer, head of publicity and marketing. Glanzer added, however, that Comic-Con works closely with programmers “to accommodate them as much as we can,” based on their needs and the level of high-profile programming to display.

Following successful promotions of Lost and Heroes, Comic-Con became a popular launching pad for new series. Turner’s Adult Swim and Cartoon Network will tease one of the most heavily anticipated new series, Star Wars: The Clone Wars. Said Brenda Freeman, head of marketing for the networks, “We kind of consider Comic-Con an upfront for consumers.”

While the increasing number of series in the sci-fi/fantasy/mythology genres will have a steady presence, networks are increasingly looking to the event as a general way to reach young males, with panels for comedies such as NBC’s The Office and FX’s It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia season debuts, and Comedy Central’s returning Sarah Silverman Program.

Some 3,000 members of the press attend, skewing heavily toward fan sites and bloggers, who can create a snowball of interest on the speed-of-light Internet.

“Word-of-mouth is not friend-to-friend now,” said Lisa Gregorian, who heads television marketing at Warner Bros. “The world has changed so dramatically because of technology that it’s one-to-many.”

Networks and studios said the attendees are passionate fans and tastemakers, and if they come away appreciating a new series or further inspired by an established one, they will become evangelists for it.

“It’s a live social network where these people share their love for entertainment, and when they get what they really like, they spread that information out virally,” said Mark Pedowitz, president of ABC Studios.

The Comic-Con buildup as a promotional vehicle has been going on for the past five years or so. It may have reached an inflection point last July 25. At the annual Television Critics Association gathering in Hollywood, ABC Entertainment head Steve McPherson at first refused to release details of a much-hyped announcement about Lost — he wanted to save the news.

McPherson finally told the critics that a key character would be returning. It wasn’t blockbuster stuff, but the message was clear: Comic-Con, in some ways, had become the platform of choice to bypass the journalistic gatekeepers and go directly to the 18- to 34-year-old males who attend the booming event en masse. Considering that many TCA critics work for newspapers where the median age of readers is over 50, it’s easy to understand McPherson’s reluctance — and Comic-Con’s appeal.

“That was a delicate thing to manage,” ABC marketing chief Mike Benson said. “But there are a lot of things that have just become more important to us from a marketing standpoint for exceedingly difficult-to-reach audiences.”

Benson’s belief in Comic-Con was even further validated during this season’s May 29 Lost finale. ABC used precious on-air real estate — reaching 12 million — for a murky 15-second spot announcing that a fictional “Octagon Global Recruiting” firm would be in San Diego July 24-27 (Comic-Con time). The spot directed viewers to a Web site that still provided few details, except to say that the “firm” would be in San Diego looking for volunteers for a research project well-known to Lost viewers. The recruitment will form the basis for a sort of unbranded, interactive booth on the Comic-Con floor.

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[Understand: broadcasting&cable]