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Big Media Comes to SXSW for Buzz -- And to Bring SXSW Everywhere Else

What are HBO, AMC, and Jimmy Kimmel doing at South By Southwest?

Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

South By Southwest started out as a place for unknown bands to make a name for themselves, before it got too big for anyone to stand out. Then the same thing happened to Web companies: Good luck trying to get your startup from zero to something in Austin this year.

But! If you’re big to begin with, or have the resources of a really big company backing you, then Austin might be a really good place to go: All those influencers! All that buzz! All that booze!

At least, that’s what lots of big brands and media companies seem to be thinking, based on the rollouts and premieres they’re doing this year.

It may help if there’s an angle that ties into the stuff South By Southwest is still supposedly about. AMC Networks, the people who bring you “Mad Men” and “The Walking Dead,” are showing off “Halt and Catch Fire,” a drama about the PC industry in the early ’80s.

HBO, who you’ve also heard of, is launching “Silicon Valley”, a new comedy from “Office Space” creator Mike Judge. And ESPN is using Austin to help tease its new FiveThirtyEight site, run by numbers wizard Nate Silver, a longtime South By Southwest hero.

None of these folks expect to “break” at South By Southwest. But they’re all happy to grab some headspace from people who might like what they’re doing, and hopefully end up chatting about it when they’re ready to roll it out in front of everyone else.

“It’s an opportunity to get the show in front people we think will enjoy it, and we want to get some early buzz,” says AMC marketing head Linda Schupack. “It’s analogous to us taking “The Walking Dead” to Comic-Con.”

That’s a pretty good parallel: Comic-Con is another nerdfest that used to cater to a very specific crowd, and is now used by the world’s biggest entertainment companies to launch their most valuable properties.

That comparison may also dismay some of South By Southwest’s oldest old-timers, but they must be used to disappointment by now. The last time I was here was five years ago, when there was clucking about the likes of Pepsi showing up to court bloggers. Those were the days!

The most telling thing about Austin now is that it’s no longer contained to Austin. Instead of trying to seed something there, some very big names are simply using it as a staging area for media blasts that are supposed to go wide from the get-go.

Apple, for instance, is putting on a five-day concert series featuring really, really big acts like Coldplay, Keith Urban and Pitbull. And everyone who visits iTunes over the next week is going to hear about the shows, which are free to any Apple TV user, or any iOS user who downloads a special iTunes Festival app.

And next week, ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel, along with a crew of roughly 200 people, will broadcast nightly from Austin’s Long Center for the Performing Arts. Kimmel’s show can reach more than three million viewers a night, so it isn’t in the business of finding the next big thing — it wants to find things that are already big.

That’s South By Southwest, says Jason Schrift, one of the show’s co-executive producers. “It just feels like the conference has grown and grown and grown,” he says. “Exponentially.”

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