NEW YORK (AP) — From a bank of chairs in an NBC Universal control room, technician Antonella Caruso counted down as if she were anticipating a rocket booster's liftoff: "Nine, eight, seven, six ..."
It was a dress rehearsal for USA's plan to let viewers of "Psych" choose the ending of Wednesday's episode, celebrating the drama's 100th episode and culminating the network's two-year experiment at an exclusively fan-centered approach at marketing.
In the episode, Shawn (actor James Roday) and Gus (Dule Hill) try to solve a murder at a party hosted by an old rock star in a California mansion. There are five suspects: the groupie, the manager, the author, the host and, of course, the butler. During the show, the suspects are narrowed down to three and viewers are asked to vote on social media who they thought committed the crime. Three endings were filmed, each lasting three minutes, and the top vote-getter will be used.
The episode salutes the 1985 film "Clue" and features that film's actors Christopher Lloyd, Lesley Ann Warren and Martin Mull, along with guest shots from Garrett Morris and Curt Smith of Tears For Fears.
Depending on where you live, you could see a different ending. USA is conducting separate votes for the East and West coast airings of the show. (Viewers in other time zones will see the Eastern version at 10 p.m. Eastern.) They estimate tabulating 190,000 to 250,000 votes.
Viewer-selected endings aren't necessarily unique (CBS' "Hawaii Five-0" did one this year), but here fans will be updated a handful of times during the show on how the vote is going. That's where Caruso's practice came in; she was counting down to an insert of a vote tally.
"Psych" is in its seventh season, a point at which most shows are considered "mature" and are losing viewers, but it does have a relatively young, devoted audience and is USA's third most-popular original show behind "Burn Notice" and "Suits." Instead of running general advertisements encouraging viewership when its sixth season started last year, USA sought to engage fans through social media and activities, said Alexandra Shapiro, USA's executive vice president of marketing and digital.
"It's great to be loved," Shapiro said. "But you have to love back."
USA set up online games for "Psych" fans to play, with real and virtual prizes. Particularly high-scoring fans even become part of the game. There was a fan appreciation day, with some invited to meet the cast. USA encouraged social media interaction with stars and others involved with the show. A "slumber party" of viewer-chosen shows that aired from midnight to 6 a.m. on a Saturday in February resulted in some 157,000 mentions on Twitter.
One goal is to make live viewing of new episodes an event, Shapiro said. DVR viewing is fine, but networks still reliably make more money when there is a strong audience for original airings.
So far, so good. The February debut of the seventh season saw stronger ratings than the sixth season opener in 2012, with a 22 percent increase in the desirable young audience of viewers aged 18-to-34, the Nielsen company said.
"Our job is so much harder than it was 10 years ago or even five years ago," Shapiro said. "We used to be content messengers. Now you have to be content creators. You as a marketer have to create compelling content that a fan is going to engage with."
It's not necessarily an approach that works with every show, she said. But it could be a template for some with similar audiences.
For this week, the chief concern is compiling the fans' votes, and making sure technicians in New Jersey charged with making sure the correct ending of Wednesday's episode is inserted.
EDITOR'S NOTE — David Bauder can be reached at dbauder(at)ap.org or on Twitter (at)dbauder.