Rants N Raves: Can Social Media Save TV?

Today’s Rant is from Gregg Litman, producer at local broadcast outlet, WCCO. I’ve come to know Gregg recently more through Twitter and our shared affinity for the Purple (Vikings). Gregg’s one of those media folks who has embraced digital tools as a way to do his job more effectively–and efficiently. Today, I wanted to give Gregg this space to share his thoughts about how social media is impacting his world.

If you’ve invested hundreds of dollars on a flat screen, you probably have some interest in the future of television, so you can imagine how much I care, after investing my entire career in the industry. For years, that future has looked bleak, with audiences shrinking and revenues falling – but a recent trend gives me reason for hope. And it looks like Social Media may actually be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Where did the viewers go?

Every year, viewers get more choices, and the TV audience gets smaller. Viewers who used to choose between a few local broadcasters are now segmented between hundreds of cable and satellite channels, rental movies, on-demand video, online video, video games, and other entertainment options – not to mention people who skip the commercials by time-shifting with DVR’s.

In some ways, those DVR viewers are the most troubling, because they watch the programs, but not the commercials. And I have to admit that I’m one of them. It saves time. I can start watching a 7:00 Timberwolves game around 8:15, catch up to the live action just in time for the final minutes, and all I miss is a bunch of commercials. Worse yet, I start watching our 10:00 newscast around 10:10, and after skipping the commercials, I’m still done by the time the show ends at 10:35. Which raises the question, if I’m not even watching the commercials on my own station’s newscast, how can TV survive? How can we maintain audiences, and retain revenues?

The answer may be found on Twitter

The LA Times reports that ratings for this year’s Grammys, Golden Globes and Super Bowl were all way up, and suggests Twitter traffic might be responsible. I not only buy the theory, I believe it applies to non-event TV, as well.

I’ve personally changed my viewing habits. Strange as it sounds, tweeting during a live TV show is fun. I’ve found myself skipping the DVR in order to watch and tweet about the #Vikings and #Gophers. It’s a way to interact with friends – “be part of a party” as the Times story indicates. And it looks like tweeting means value-added viewing for other users, too – I’ve noticed plenty of people doing it for shows like #Lost and #Idol.

Why is this important? Because you have to watch the show (and its commercials) in real time in order to do it. At minimum, it’s a way to revive ratings, and possibly the first wave of interactive TV. At best, it’ll become a way for broadcasters to identify and connect with their most engaged and involved viewers.

The future

Will this just be a fad, with a limited number of early adopters, or will tweeting and television go hand-in-hand into the future? Will broadcasters find a way to identify and target these highly engaged viewers, or even host their conversations, the way Mullen hosted #brandbowl during the Super Bowl? I’d love to hear your thoughts. No matter what, though, all of these possibilities have me feeling a lot better about the future.

Gregg Litman is the senior producer of news and sports at WCCO-TV, where he writes and produces more than 200 newscasts per year, field-produce reporter packages, create special reports, and manages sports department. You can find him at @grlitman.

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19 comments on “Rants N Raves: Can Social Media Save TV?

  1. Katie says:

    Great post, Gregg! I couldn’t agree more. As geeky as it sounds, if I’m watching a show I’m really into, I will likely have my laptop or phone nearby to tweet out my thoughts on what I’m watching. TV is becoming an interactive experience for me. I actually value the commercial breaks because it gives me a chance to catch up on what other people are talking about. Even last fall when the VMAs were airing, I heard about the whole Kanye/Taylor Swift fiasco through Twitter which then got me running to a TV to watch what was happening.

    You’re definitely on to something and it will be interesting to see how social media pans out for TV ratings in the near future.

    @kshoop

  2. Danielle says:

    I think social media most definitely helps TV. Watching the MTV VMA’s this past year, every single trending topic on Twitter had to do with MTV (MTV, VMA, Taylor Swift, Beyonce, Kanye West, etc..). I’ve also noticed (being a crazy television addict like myself), social media is a great way to connect with people who like similar shows as you. It makes you more involved in the show, the community of fans behind it.

  3. Mike Keliher says:

    First of all, Gregg, I think I met you this morning but — perhaps due to my lack of coffee — I was too stupid to actually introduce myself.

    Anyway, you’re on to something here. If Twitter and the like can make TV programming less of a when-you-can consumption and more of a with-your-friends experience, that sounds like good news for you and your kind. 🙂

    But social media can do more than that. See also: http://www.fasthorseinc.com/blog/index.php/2010/01/08/these-people-make-me-care/

  4. Gregg Litman says:

    Thanks for the comments. It’s nice to see that I identified an actual trend, not some kind of mirage.

    TV folks (and advertisers) have been searching for a DVR-killer for years, so it would be ironic if the viewers found it for us! If only 10% of viewers who had been time-shifting returned to live viewing, it would have a huge impact on our ratings and revenues.

    It would be even bigger if we could find a way to either capitalize on these public lists of interested and engaged fans, or even host the conversation ourselves on specialized websites.

    But Mike is right, there are better uses for social media. Jason and the other reporters mentioned in the Fast Horse blog do a great job using social media to build audiences and do their jobs better. I’ve learned a lot by following all of them, and working with some!

  5. Taylor says:

    Right on: 3rd Party apps are going to be big part of national television programming — and not just twitter, but cable channels like Bravo are also branching out and signing Foursquare deals as well.

    But many people actually don’t eliminate commercials from a recorded program. The breaks are built into the format of the program, it’s more work to actively fast forward through breaks, and viewers are exposed to the ad even through fast playback:

    http://www.wired.com/epicenter/2009/11/many-dvr-users-watch-ads-anyway-even-fast-forwarders-are-exposed/

    and

    http://arstechnica.com/media/news/2009/01/dont-touch-the-dvr-commercials-help-us-enjoy-the-show-more.ars

    Will commercial breaks become the new ‘comment breaks’? We’ll see. But audiences still remain relatively captive to those breaks, it’s just that TV ads are insultingly bad, even the big budget ones:

    http://www.hulu.com/adzone/watch#50032700

    And social media doesn’t necessarily encourage real time viewing as much as collects individual’s real-time reactions.

    Tweeting during Viking’s game is a good illustration of “remote collectiveness”, where people on different couches talk like they’re on the same couch. But that’s a small example compared to all the discussions around TV programming that happen in blog post comments on sites like Videogum and the use of the #LOST tag on days other than Tuesday.

    If “TV will be saved”, TV has to make more than two major changes every 30 years (reality TV and American Idol spinoffs).

  6. Gregg Litman says:

    Taylor: It will definitely take more to save TV than this small trend – and you provide very good examples. I find it interesting, though, that the viewers are creating their own path for us by returning to live TV by themselves.

    It was fun to watch all the tweets during the opening ceremonies of the #Olympics, and I wonder how much NBC gained in live viewers, and lost in opportunities to host those conversations and reach out to those engaged viewers.

    I also agree that folks are sometimes still engaged while watching on DVR, and often skip commercials by doing other things while watching live – but until the ratings model catches up to those realities, it’s very helpful to have extra live viewers!

  7. Kasey Skala says:

    Only because I know you, I’m going to play the role of “yes, but what about” here.

    It’s your theory that in an attempt to be social, people are watching more “live” broadcast (live meaning first time airing, not actually live) in an attempt to get instant feedback and start conversations.

    I could see the opposite happening. If I know you are watching a particular program, might I not be as inclined to rush home? If I can follow your tweets on my mobile phone, maybe I don’t see the need to actually be in front of the screen. Unless there’s a high level of interest, I know that I can utilize Twitter and other platforms to get a recap.

  8. Gregg Litman says:

    Kasey: I hate to disappoint you, but I agree with your point.

    I often rely on hashtag updates to catch up with what’s happening during a game that I’m not watching, so I’m sure others do. I doubt many people follow #Lost or #Idol that way, though. And even when I’m using the hashtag to follow the #Wolves, the update sometimes draws me back to the live broadcast (usually when I see tweets about 4th quarter leads or comebacks).

    Either way, those hashtags provide broadcasters with more live viewers, more engagement, and a better chance to find and connect with loyal viewers than we’ve ever had before. Now it’s up to the broadcasters to take advantage of it.

  9. yawner says:

    Lot of theory there, backed up by speculation – glad I didn’t have to pay for that conjecture.

  10. Gregg Litman says:

    Yawner: It’s hard to write about the future without speculating, but most of mine came during replies to comments. The original post focused on history, surprisingly high ratings for some recent programs, and the LA Times’ suggestion that Twitter played a role. The final graph was a call to action for my industry, and an invitation to start a conversation. I’m glad that some people found that conversation interesting, and I’m truly disappointed that you didn’t.

  11. This is the exact situation here at my house in South Mpls. In fact, the Vikings games were enjoyed 100% more thanks to reading the FB and Twitter commentary.
    However, I’m not so receptive to all the negative bantering about the Olympics.
    Given a keyboard, most people seem to make negative comments and I wish it was about 90% less.

  12. Gregg Litman says:

    Wendy: You’re probably right about keyboards and comments. Fortunately, folks have been pretty kind in this comment section (at least so far).

  13. I agree with a lot you’re saying here Gregg, although I somewhat question whether or not TV needs saving. TV was designed as a way to help sell products. TV is either not achieving that, or it’s perceived to not be achieving that.

    If we get more people to watch live, but they’re tweeting/facebooking during commercials, I’m not sure that’s a win for advertisers. I guess it’s better than fast-forwarding.

    I expected that by this point, there’d be better product integration with shows. I often see design items on HGTV that I’d like to buy – or check out – I should be able to pause, click, and buy it.

  14. Gregg Litman says:

    Jason: Most viewers are multi-tasking these days, whether it’s tweeting and facebooking, or packing lunches and paying the bills. At least this kind of multi-tasking encourages live viewing, and counts in the ratings.

    That said, I think this is just the first wave of interactive TV, and I think you’re vision of product integration is absolutely accurate. It’s also very similar to the vision Desarae Veit shared in a response she posted on her own blog earlier today: http://tinyurl.com/ybt4w2m.

  15. Sarah says:

    Great post, Gregg! Even when I had no intention of watching a show I’ve found myself tuning into a it when I see people tweeting about it.

    @sarahjaneml

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