Let’s be honest: even the least geeky elements of the TV industry are well aware of the growing role of social media in building buzz around shows.

Twitter is playing a huge part in that, forming the essential back-channel to pretty much every major show, from X Factor and The Killing through to Question Time and the Super Bowl. With 140m monthly active users posting more than 340m tweets a day, it’s a powerful network.

Its UK general manager, Tony Wang, explained more at MIPCube this afternoon, presenting before being interviewed on-stage by digital strategist Nic Newman.

Social TV is not anything that’s new. It definitely predates the internet, and arguably and ironically probably predates TV itself,” said Wang. “Part of the process of enjoying an experience is sharing that experience. It’s almost as if that exclamation of your enjoyment of that experience is critical in completing your enjoyment of it.”

Wang says this is true for film, food, sports, politics, religion, sex – “anything you’re passionate about”. And for TV that exclamation is being shared more and more in tweets.

“What has changed is Twitter has brought people closer, and made that a more rich, deep and close experience… a global watercooler. There has never been a more exciting time in TV than now.”

So how can broadcasters best harness this energy? Wang suggested three ways: do nothing about it, do something about it, or do something “artful” with it. “The past, present and the future of social TV,” he explained.

Why do something? 80% of under-25s are using a second screen to communicate with friends while watching TV, while 72% are using Twitter, Facebook or a mobile app to comment on the TV shows that they’re watching, added Wang.

Wang also took a potshot at recent reports that the BBC thought people shouldn’t be tweeting while watching its Frozen Planet documentary series, quoting a series of tweets of people tweeting how much they loved it, or their feedback.

“People are definitely engaging with the shows whether it’s a social programme… or something that’s more intense and serious, as that BBC article had mentioned.”

Wang also dealt with questions about what the return on investment is for broadcasters who do innovative social TV things. He cited a study conducted in February 2012 by TV Guide in the US.

76% of TV viewers that are surveyed say they were prompted to start watching a TV show by positive comments, and 64% said it was due to social media buzz about show topics or storylines.” It’s not just about acquisition though: social media helps keep people engaged in shows – 77% said it held their interest.

Broadcasters are not the ones to choose whether to have social TV. It happens whether they like it or not. But they have a choice about how to harness that social TV energy,” he said, before showing some ‘tweets per second’ stats from the last year for big TV events, including 8,900 tweets a second when Beyonce announced her pregnancy at the MTV VMAs.

So how are broadcasters harnessing the energy? Wang gave some examples from his second ‘doing something’ category. They include having a hashtag on-air, and a creative call to action with it. Have @names on air to show presenters and shows’ Twitter accounts, and get stars to tweet when a show is airing.

Wang showed an example graph for The Oscars, which saw tweets start to spike when the hashtag #oscars was shown on-screen. But he talked about creative calls to action, like MTV encouraging people to tweet #whatwillgagawear predictions during its VMAs show.

How about account handles on-air? “Deceptively simple, but a very powerful way to get subscribers,” said Wang, citing CNN presenter Piers Morgan as a good example: when his account handle was shown on-air, he was attracting 650-odd new followers a minute.

As for talent tweeting when a show is airing, Wang talked about a US show called Bad Girls Club that saw a measurable ratings boost when its stars were tweeting synchronously with the show.  Meanwhile, US DJ Howard Stern tweeted during a showing of his Private Parts film, almost providing a director’s commentary, but through social media.

CBS also got its presenter Jeff Probst to live-tweet during its Survivor show’s 2011 season, and saw the amount of tweets per day about the programme quadruple.

Wang talked about the future for social TV, where broadcasters use Twitter more artfully than just on-screen hashtags and handles, and talent-tweets. One early example: Oscars co-host James Franco live-tweeting  a video while actually walking out on-stage – giving his followers a first-person view of his Oscars experience.

Another example: parallel storylines “where you have characters on-screen, they have a life, and using the account handles on Twitter, living out a parallel storyline during breaks between seasons, and during breaks between episodes… the storylines continue off-air and onto Twitter.”

Fox News has also been using Twitter for the Republican presidential primary debates, getting input from the audience on whether candidates answered questions or dodged them, using hashtags #answer and #dodge plus their names. They could also send their questions to the Fox News presenter during the debate.

After the first hour of the debate, graphs were shown on-screen for each candidate, showing a huge downward spike for Mitt Romney, indicating that the audience thought he was dodging a question about his tax records.

Wang said that Twitter is keen to see more examples of this kind of thing from broadcasters in Europe. It’s hiring people who have been working in the broadcast industry to provide advice to their peers, and it’s looking to do more with integrating Twitter into social ratings.

Is it risky to use Twitter for political shows, given the perception of its users as more tech-savvy, and thus more likely to be liberal in their political views?

“Tech tends to be more leaning on the left, but one of the things that’s interesting about Twitter is it amplifies the weakest signal sometimes,” replied Wang, noting that the US Republican party has been using Twitter in innovative ways, as well as the right-leaning Fox News.


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Stuart Dredge is a freelance journalist, and a regular contributor to Music Ally, The Week Junior, and more... including MIPBlog :)

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