For the first time in a decade, Fox can say that it has a live-action half-hour comedy hit on its hands with New Girl, which blew past all ratings projections to open with a big 4.8/12 in adults 18-49 (10.3 million viewers overall). New Girl‘s performance caught everyone by surprise, including Fox’s head of marketing Joe Earley. While he is elated today, just a couple of days ago he was worried as the network’s risky promo stunt of putting the New Girl pilot on iTunes, VOD, airplanes and Hulu and in hotels for two weeks ahead of the premiere had started to get out of hand. Fox had made the deal to raise awareness for the series starring Zooey Deschanel, as the show’s intent-to-view levels had been consistently high but its awareness numbers were lagging. In exchange for getting the pilot for free streaming, distributors committed to promote the show across their platforms, including a prominent placement on the homepage of iTunes, which was taking a pre-premiere window on a show for the first time. After the first week, things looked good — awareness for New Girl was up by 6%, something Earley said could not have been achieved by the network’s standard marketing campaign alone. (Free press for the sneak peek experiment might have helped, too.) After awareness went up, the buzz metrics also started jumping, and chatter on the show increased 400%. “People were talking peer-to-peer, and it was overwhelmingly positive,” Earley said. “So we figured any viewing lost (by the promotional streaming) would be replaced by people who didn’t intend to watch.”

‘New Girl’ Opens Big, Tops Night

But then an alarming trend developed. “The numbers started climbing and climbing at a much higher rate,” Earley said. “When we hit a million views, I started to become nervous; when we hit 2 million, I started to break out in a cold sweat. Over 2 million viewers had consumed this show before it even premiered!” Fox couldn’t stop the promotion as they had a commitment to their distribution partners but began thinking of ways to slow down the rate of consumption of the pilot, like pulling back on promotion. “But there was no slowing it down, people were enjoying it,” Earley said, noting that the vast majority of viewers watched the whole pilot, something rarely seen in free previews of new series. What’s more, the promotional streaming window didn’t end until the day before the New Girl premiere, further chipping away at potential repeat viewing. So Earley and the rest of the Fox brass came to accept the fact that the promo streaming stint would probably depress viewership for the opener but hopefully boost the series’ long-term prospects by prompting many people who sampled the show to put it on their DVR season pass. With the massive pre-premiere viewing and Fox’s (not-so-good) track record of launching live-action comedies, the network was prepared for a premiere 18-49 rating in the high 2s and hoping for one in the neighborhood of last fall’s Raising Hope, which launched to a 3.1, followed by a slow build. The absolute best-case scenario was if New Girl held on to its Glee lead-in. Instead, the rookie’s demo rating shot up by 20% from Glee. How did that happen?

1. The show was good, so word-of-mouth and critical response was great. But the same was true for ABC’s Modern Family two years ago, and New Girl eclipsed even that premiere by 12%. What New Girl had extra was ..

2. A big, likable star. Fox made Deschanel the center of its promotional push, which ranged from traditional billboards and Web banners to talking video ads in shopping malls to Deschanel filming special promos to air during syndicated comedies on Fox stations. Additionally, Fox tapped in to Deschanel’s large fan base and Internet following, including promoting the show on her popular blog, HelloGiggles. Earley believes that the ratings spike from Glee to New Girl can be explained with Deschanel “bringing in new people” to the network who don’t necessarily watch TV or Fox. Additionally, New Girl had …

3. Great repeatability, something that helped offset some of the pre-premiere online viewing as some of the people who had already seen the pilot watched it again last night.

All in all, we will probably never know what exactly led to New Girl’s extraordinary opening number. It was “some good alchemy happening,” Earley called it, noting that, while the free downloading experiment ultimately worked, he would do it differently next time, starting the promotional window a week earlier and ending it a week before the series premiere. Still, was there a magic bullet? “Yes,” Earley said. “It was Zooey Deschanel.”