‘Watercooler’ Chats Spread to the Home

Will social media revive appointment TV?

A number of network executives planning to expand social media program extensions next season hope the answer is yes.  

Recent research indicates that viewers increasingly interact simultaneously with TV shows and social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to comment in real time on story lines, action and characters. Research also shows that viewers, enabled by technology, are increasingly using mobile devices to engage in real-time, at-home “watercooler” talk about programs as they air.

Smartphones, coupled with social media applications, are “transformative devices,” said Alan Wurtzel, president of research and media development at NBC Universal. “People always like to share experiences,” he said. Research that NBCU conducted during last month’s Vancouver Winter Olympics, he added, shows that “mobile will play a significant role” in expanding the real-time watercooler phenomenon.

Among other findings, the research also found that 52 million Olympic-related tweets were transmitted during the Games, and that roughly half of all mobile activity was conducted simultaneously while watching TV or using the Internet.

While executives at several networks say it’s hard to prove that social media applications actually boost ratings, they seem to have helped stem the erosion.

Jason Klarman, gm of Oxygen, made the case that a new social network app helped boost the West Coast ratings for its four-year-old program Bad Girls Club fivefold this year. The app, Oxygen Live — which enables viewers to chat in real time about Bad Girls — was first implemented on the East Coast at the beginning of the season. Four episodes in, ratings on the East Coast had grown 90-plus percent, according to Oxygen research. On the West Coast, where the app wasn’t available, ratings were up only 14 percent. Oxygen Live was then launched on the West Coast, where the show “is now up 60 percent for the season,” Klarman said.
 
Technology and social media have created a “moment of transformation for TV,” Klarman said. “It’s a DVR killer because you have to watch live” in order to participate.

The CW got an early jump in the social media space, said Rick Haskins, evp, marketing for the network. “We’ve been twittering since 2007 [and social media] is an integral piece of our marketing tool bag,” he said.

Increasingly, the networks are doing “watch-and-tweet” promotions, where they urge Facebook fans to watch a program and tweet with their friends about it during the telecast. Haskins said that in the first couple of weeks of the promotion, tweeters for Life Unexpected have grown from 400 to 8,000.

But Haskins cautions that social media doesn’t work equally for all programs. “There are viral shows and non-viral shows,” he said, noting that while Gossip Girl and Vampire Diaries (pictured) have large social media followings, Melrose Place never caught on virally. (It has 70,000 Facebook fans compared to 600,000 for Vampire Diaries, he said.) It’s hard to know why some don’t connect, he added.

Audiences also behave differently, said Michael Benson, evp, marketing, ABC, noting that “with Lost, throughout the show [the audience is] analyzing different scenes and talking about everything. With The Bachelor, it’s more active immediately after the show.”

ABC has 10 million fans across various Facebook show pages, a number Benson says continues to grow. “It’s more of a communication tool than a marketing tool,” he said. “We’ll ask them what they think about how a story line” is evolving, or about certain characters. And they’re not shy about telling us what they really think.”

Marketing opportunities are beginning to emerge. The Lexus brand integration on FlashForward’s premiere this season included links on its Facebook page that took viewers to both additional FlashForward clips featuring the car as well as a Lexus site. ABC also plans to ask fans about their knowledge of certain sponsors’ products.

When the CW gave away a Ford earlier this season in connection with 90210, the on-air sweepstakes promotion drove viewers to both the network Web site and the show’s fan page on Facebook, which is where 40 percent of viewers registered to participate, said Haskins. “That’s a bull’s-eye,” he said, adding the Facebook page has 600,000 fans.

CBS has a lot of social media activity surrounding Survivor and Amazing Race, and is said to be studying how to expand such activity across its schedule next season. The network declined to comment, but a source there said one of the keys is figuring out how best to get advertisers to increase their participation via fully integrated co-promotions.

Buyers say the networks must continue to innovate in the social media space. “What the networks are doing is a mirror image of what advertisers are trying to achieve” in the space, said Shari Cohen, president, co-executive director at WPP’s Mindshare. “You have to follow the consumer wherever they go and this is a vital part of their journey.”