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Over the next two weeks, 58 primetime broadcast series will have their season premieres. Which means that 58 times during the next two weeks, your Twitter feed will fill up with actors and producers of those shows talking about those season premieres.
Twitter didn’t exist 10 years ago, and even five years ago you would have been hard-pressed to find casts and writers who were engaging with fans during an episode. Now, it would be surprising if it didn’t happen. Although it’s still next to impossible to say whether social engagement drives linear ratings, networks wouldn’t even consider making social media an afterthought.
“When somebody is doing a live tweet session and they’re engaged with talent and their friends … it’s kind of that analogy of the restaurant where you can’t get reservations for a month or the store that has a line out the door,” says Ben Blatt, executive director, digital strategy at ABC. “You want to know what’s happening there.”
A Changing Landscape
When Twitter launched in March 2006, the TV business was still operating much as it had for the prior half-century. DVRs were considered a small factor in ratings; Netflix delivered DVDs by mail; Amazon sold a bunch of stuff.
Now, with original programming mushrooming everywhere and an ever-expanding menu of how and where to watch that programming, social media can actually serve as a tether to the traditional network business model: getting people to sit down and watch a show as it airs.
“I think the advantage of it is it helps eventize an episode, and it’s added incentive for fans to watch a show in real time as opposed to DVR,” says Chris Ender, exec vp communications at CBS. “It provides sort of a deeper dive of engagement, because you’re giving them a pretty cool second-screen experience.”
It’s also much easier now than it was four or five years ago to get talent to take part in promoting shows on social media. Five years ago, The CW actually held social-media training sessions for its actors and producers, says Rick Haskins, the net’s head of marketing and digital.
Today, “I think it is much easier to get them to participate, because they’re more comfortable with it, they understand the power of it and they know that this is going to behoove [them] in [their] next job,” Haskins says. “That is the second or third question that comes out of a producer’s mouth: What is your social following?”
“Everybody gets the importance, everybody sees what it can do,” says Maggie Furlong, vp social media at Fox. Creators and stars also make time to help with campaigns she says, citing a YouTube video for the network’s new comedy Grandfathered.
“Josh Peck mentions in the pilot that he made a video that was the most-watched YouTube diaper-changing video. They wrote that for us, and we got to go shoot that on set,” Furlong says, noting that series creator Danny Chun took a hand in crafting the script. “Everybody wants to chip in and help.”
Hanging With the Cool Kids — and Their Dads
Newer apps like Snapchat are part of the social equation for networks as well, but they don’t yet have the reach of behemoths like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. CBS did its first-ever Snapchat promotion for The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, Ender says, and the other broadcasters are dabbling as well.
“We have not broken the code on how to use Snapchat,” Haskins says. “It feels like more of a one-on-one experience. I understand why people like it in their personal lives. I think it gets more challenging for me where I’m a broadcaster trying to reach a broad audience.”
Instagram’s user base of 300 million is on par with that of Twitter (316 million), but it still does have the veneer of cool — and it’s an increasingly important tool, so long as it’s used the right way.
“We are seeing way more chatter than we really thought possible on Instagram for a lot of our shows,” Fox’s Furlong says. “It’s our biggest platform and our most engaged platform for Empire. For Last Man [on Earth], we see our highest engagement there. It kind of shifts what and how we’re creating, because we do create content on a platform-by-platform basis. So instead of driving people to Instagram to see a 15-second slice of a trailer and then linking to YouTube to see more, we give them something cooler and more Instagram-y, for lack of a better word, to keep them there.”
Even if they’re not seen as “cool” anymore, however, Facebook and Twitter are too big for the networks to ignore. Facebook, ABC’s Blatt notes, now has close to 1.5 billion users worldwide.
“There are new and innovative social platforms that keep popping up, that especially get more of a younger audience to be excited about them, because they want that independence from the masses,” he says. “But when you’re launching a new television show, a new brand, and you want to reach people where they are, they’re on Facebook.”
The Big Question
So does all the chatter about a show on social media actually help a network make money on said show? “That is the biggest million-dollar question for anyone working in social media,” Furlong says.
Anecdotally, the robust social presence for shows like Scandal and Empire seems to have helped pique interest among some viewers — Empire‘s social engagement numbers, at least, rose in step with its Nielsen ratings. But whether there’s a direct, cause-and-effect relationship between the two is still very much an open question.
“I don’t think anybody has found a magic-bullet equation that live tweeting equals higher ratings,” Ender says. “I just don’t think anybody has been able to make that correlation. The primary value right now is awareness and deeper engagement with the audience.”
It’s that engagement — and the potential to have fans watch a show live, where networks still make most of their money — is plenty enough reason to keep networks live-tweeting and Instagramming their brains out.
“When you’re in a social conversation and there are so many options to watch entertainment delayed and on demand, there’s more of a rationale for people to say I don’t want to miss that conversation,” Blatt says. “We all feel good about it — we just can’t prove it.”
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