By Lynette Rice
July 24, 2017 at 01:32 PM EDT
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It was a shocking announcement by Outlander executive producer Ronald D. Moore: After an excruciating, 18-month-long droughtlander, he and Starz decided to screen the season 3 premiere episode Friday at Comic-Con International.

For the 4,000 fans who packed Ballroom 20 — the second largest room at the San Diego Convention Center — it was a tremendous surprise greeted with near-deafening screams. But for the millions of others who can only dream of scoring an impossible-to-get ticket to Comic-Con, it was another let down after waiting more than a year for new episodes. Thousands took out their frustration on Twitter and the Facebook page of Outlander author Diana Gabaldon, who attended the panel and sat with the fans to watch the episode.

“I just wish that we all would have the same opportunity,” wrote fan Deborah J. Devine. “The majority of the rest of us are not as fortunate to attend Comic-Con, and while we enjoy the interviews, and video clips — well, it just makes us out here in the Droughtlander-verse — :(. Sad.” Adds Leisa Marelli, “I’m VERY disappointed that you all chose to do that. Yes, the people paid good money to see the Outlander cast and the print shop set, but that was just a small sampling of Outlander fans. I’m sure I’m not the only one when I say I feel cheated after waiting so patiently for Season 3. Not the best marketing move.”

Believe it or not, it was love for fans that prompted Starz to screen the episode after a brief panel discussion with Moore and the cast that was hosted by Jenna Dewan Tatum. One Starz insider tells EW that Moore “loved” the idea of springing the premiere on Comic-Con goers, especially since the cast couldn’t make an appearance at the convention last year due to production constraints. And because the gap between episodes lasted too long, Moore and the network wanted to make a big splash at the convention. And boy, did they: Besides the panel, trucks carrying Outlander billboards cruised constantly by the convention center, and a roving band of shirtless male highlanders delighted folks on the streets in downtown San Diego. Plus, costar Richard Rankin (Roger Wakefield) appeared at EW’s Brave New Warriors panel and the cast participated in an epic photo session in EW’s photo suite.

Gabaldon certainly favored the decision to screen the episode. “The highlight was….that they chose to show the first episode of Season Three!” she wrote on her Facebook page. “Ron and Maril [Davis] and I all sneaked out and sat in the audience, to see how people reacted, and it was truly wonderful to see how riveted everyone was … and as I remarked to Ron afterward, ‘And they laughed in the right places, too!'”

It’s not exactly unprecedented to screen a full episode at Comic-Con. But those are typically reserved for pilots only — like how ABC screened the first episode of Lost in 2004 and Fox showed the first installment of Fringe in 2008 — not full episodes from a returning show. For mega-genre hits like Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead, the networks only offer up exclusive teasers. Maybe that’s why some marketing executives question whether it was such a great idea for Outlander to totally lift its skirt — or should we say kilt? — at Comic-Con.

“Mixed bag,” says one high-profile marketing exec at a broadcast network. “Good if you build it up and get the fan base there. They are your evangelists. Also fine to show new trailers or scenes or teases. The fans expect that. Not good to sneak it [episode] in … that gets fans upset who really make the effort to see their shows.”

“You do wonder if it’s necessary,” anothers another marketing guru from a major studio. “I’m a big believer of taking care of the fans and giving them something unexpected, i.e. the proverbial surprise and delight, which showing the episode would accomplish,” the exec told EW. “Ideally, that ignites a fervor for the new season and gets everyone who’s not there stoked about the upcoming episodes. However, that carries the risk of alienating fans that aren’t in the ballroom. If I was planning it, I would have shown the S3 premiere in the ballroom at Comic-Con, let the press and fans run with it to stoke the buzz and conversation, and then I would have released the episode as a preview online so everyone who wasn’t there could experience what was seen as well. At the minimum, they could have released an extended scene online.”

Instead, Starz released a new trailer right before Comic-Con. Fans were also treated to more photographs from the new season, like Jamie (Sam Heughan) in the print shop.

For what it’s worth, not every fan who couldn’t attend the convention was bitter or upset. Wrote Pat Kramer on Gabaldon’s Facebook page, “People pay high dollar to go to this event…They deserve the vip treatment…So tacky of others to begrudge them…Any body could have bought a ticket and gone…I can not afford the 2500 mile trip so I am happy for those that got the treat…I think that Ron is very generous and so is the cast and Diane…I have thoroughly enjoyed the pictures, videos, and podcasts…Thank you all for those.”

Adds Derek N. Ali Taylor, “Cannot believe the pity party some of the fans are throwing! I do believe we are grown adults. Get it together, Outlander friends! Special things ARE worth the wait. Great for the folks who got to see Ep 1. Great for the rest of us come September! Before we know it, all of Season 3 will be on DVD and fans everywhere can watch each and every episode over and over into oblivion!”

Have a strong opinion about this? Make sure to tune into a special edition of Outlander Live! at 6 p.m. ET on July 25 on EW Radio, Sirius XM 105. And look out for EW’s next Outlander cover, coming this fall!

Diana Gabaldon's genre-bending time-travel novels come to life in Starz's series.
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