How to Engage a TV Audience on Social Media — An Interview with CBS News’ Susan Zirinsky

"I don’t ever think, I’m doing that to increase my ratings," said Susan Zirinsky, executive producer of the “48 Hours Mystery” broadcast on CBS News. In a recent interview with Social Times, Zirinsky explained how the television series about unsolved murder cases found a second home - and a new voice – on Facebook and Twitter.

 

“I don’t ever think I’m doing that to increase my ratings,” said Susan Zirinsky, executive producer of the “48 Hours Mystery” broadcast on CBS News. “I’m doing social media because I want us to be part of the world’s discussion about law and justice.”  In a recent interview with Social Times, Zirinsky explained how the television series about unsolved murder cases found a second home – and a new voice – on Facebook and Twitter.

According to Reuters, between 25 percent and 75 percent of people who watch television are engaging with another screen at the same time. This might explain why it’s become increasingly common to turn on the television and see a subtitled message from networks to follow them on Twitter or Facebook.

But Zirinsky doesn’t feel that the television audience and the online audience are necessarily one and the same. “I do not really believe that social media pushes more viewers to the TV,” said Zirinsky. But “I do truly believe that there is a huge audience on the social networks…and that community is one that I want to be a part of.”

Zirinsky got her start in social media doing Web companion pieces for the CBS nuclear war drama “Jericho.” Unable to use any of the actors or clips from the show, Zirinsky grabbed all the secretaries in the office and shot interviews based on “Jericho’s” story line and themes.  After 22 episodes, the “webumentary” took off. “The series on the Web got more attention than the TV series,” Zirinsky remembers.

And for about four hours, the executive producer held the distinction of having coined the term “webumentary” on Wikipedia. (The entry was later corrected.)

After one season Zirinsky decided she wanted her own crime blog – “and not as a promotional tool for ‘48 Hours,’ “she said, “because we have a website. I wanted something else.”  With two people from her staff, some summer interns and a couple of pages she launched Crimesider, a blog covering the country’s top crimes with stories, videos and original reporting.  In August 2011, at the height of the Casey Anthony murder trial, Crimesider garnered 24 million page views and 4 million unique visitors.

By now Zirinsky could see that her audience online was a different animal. “You’d have to be an ostrich, if you’re in the media business, to not sense the ground opening and the social revolution bubbling up,” she explained.

Zirinsky decided to apply some of the lessons learned from her blog and Web series to“48 Hours Mystery.” With a handful of staffers, she threw up Facebook and Twitter pages and started engaging with viewers directly.  “We didn’t quite know how to do it,” Zirinsky admitted.  At times there were so many conversations happening at once that Facebook would shut them down. They brought in a social media expert, who didn’t work out, and another, who did. The staff started tag-teaming on both sites to cover multiple conversation threads.

Flash forward to the present day: “We’ve landed at the beach in Normandy, everybody’s dead and I’m taking over the island,” said Zirinsky. “So is now not an option if you’re on my staff.  This is part of your job.”

While the show is on the air, which is usually between 10:00 p.m. and 11:00 p.m. eastern time, Zirinsky and her team will set up camp on Facebook and Twitter, using the hashtag #48hours for the latter.

Each of the two platforms she uses has its advantages. “I’m a huge Twitter fan, and I really like it as a news asset,” said Zirinksy, but she finds that Facebook facilitates longer conversations because there is no character limit. “You can get to a deeper level,” she said.