Bringing It All Back Home
Even TV execs aren't too myopic to see the changes wrought by social media
You've seen the studies and heard the hype: Network TV is in trouble, its audience and advertisers increasingly migrating to social media, video games, mobile phones and a thousand other digital distractions. The sky is falling in TV Land: in its place, a mess of wires, keyboards and iPhones.
But it takes an awfully severe case of myopia -- even by TV executive standards -- not to also see the benefits that social media brings to the television viewing experience. So let's take a few moments to appreciate the many ways that sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are actually helping make TV great again.
TV Is Social (Again)
Legend has it that when TV was first introduced, whole families would gather 'round the set to watch programs like Texaco Star Theater or The Ed Sullivan Show. But by the 1980s, when TVs had gotten smaller and cheaper, every member of the family had his or her own set in the bedroom. By the '90s, there were so many channels that no two members of the same family wanted to (or had to) watch the same thing anyway. With the introduction of DVRs in the '00s, watching TV no longer happened just in your own space, it happened in your own time. In some cases, TV even migrated to the least social room in the house: the bathroom.
But social media is once again bringing people together around the television. Now, fans of Lost post their reactions - and their reactions to their friends' reactions - in real-time on Facebook; Twitter bristles with approval or disgust every time an American Idol (or Bachelorette or Survivor) contestant is sent home. And you've never really watched Top Chef, Jersey Shore or The Real Housewives of New York until you've watched along with one of Gawker's live blogs.
Research suggests that watching television while surfing the Internet is increasingly becoming the norm: In December of 2009, 59 percent of people used the Internet while watching TV, up from 57 percent in December of 2008, according to Nielsen. Even more compelling, people who used both media simultaneously did so for three and-a-half hours a day in December 2009, up from just two and-a-half hours a day in December 2008.
"We believe that it's being driven by social media," says Matt O'Grady, who runs the cross-platform measurement business at Nielsen. Twitter and Facebook ranked among the top Web sites that people tend to visit when they are media multitasking, he says. And the numbers are even higher when it comes to "event TV" like the Super Bowl or the Academy Awards. "The large events certainly have a lot of simultaneous usage," says O'Grady, suggesting that the bigger the TV show, the more likely people are to want to share the viewing experience with their friends online.
When Betty White took the stage as host of Saturday Night Live on May 8, it was the culmination of a movement that started on Facebook. Over the previous six months, 500,000 people joined a Facebook Group called Betty White to Host SNL (Please); the rest is sketch-comedy history. (Inevitably, there are now groups encouraging the former Golden Girl to do everything from host the Academy Awards next year to get in the ring with boxer Manny Pacquiao.)
But for all the attention it got, that group's success is hardly the most significant impact that social media has had on Saturday Night Live. Much more significant is the ability it gives users to turn individual sketches into viral clips, which is really how segment-oriented late-night shows like Saturday Night Live, The Daily Show, and whatever Conan O'Brien will be doing on TBS this fall want to be viewed.
With so many TV viewers offering their opinions for free, it was only a matter of time before TV executives started paying attention. One way that social media is making TV better is by letting the programmers and writers know what their shows' most passionate fans - not just a handful of "Nielsen families" - really think about their work. And the feedback they provide is way more in-depth than simple tune-in or tune-out numbers.
Network Insights, a research company that mines social media for data, produced a report in May called "Social Sense TV" that used Web chatter to glean insights into the minds of TV viewers. Among the findings of its report is that the shows that garner the most attention on social media aren't necessarily the most highly rated shows. Programs like Lost, Modern Family and Saturday Night Live scored considerably higher in the Networked Insights report than they did in the Nielsen ratings, adding a valuable dimension to the 2-D world of "How many people are watching?"
"We all know that Modern Family is a very successful show" in terms of buzz, says Networked Insights CEO Dan Neely, "but the Nielsen numbers don't show it. We're showing that people are actually engaged in the show."
"Nielsen can claim the TV was on this show at this time," he adds, "but we can guarantee they were watching."
The networks are listening to social media on their own, as well. In June, The New York Times reported that Bravo is "relying heavily on social media to fine-tune story lines in its programs, so that each episode is even more efficiently tailored to its audience's taste." Like other networks, Bravo also encourages its stars to maintain blogs and creates Facebook pages for its shows so it can harvest fan reaction.
"We get a lot of information about story lines, and the different people, and what they want to see more of," Bravo president Frances Berwick told the paper.
Sh*t TV Execs Read
Earlier this decade, the blog-to-book (and sometimes to movie) phenomenon irked long-suffering writers. In the coming decade, it might be Twitter-to-TV shows, thanks to CBS' 2009 decision to make a sitcom out of Sh*t My Dad Says, a Twitter account (1.4 million followers and counting) and Tumblr blog documenting a 29-year-old man's life with his foul-mouthed, curmudgeonly father.
Granted, there is no reason to believe the show will be a hit, much less particularly good. Early clips suggest the Twitter feed's pithy humor has been reduced to standard sitcom one-liners punctuated by a laugh track (William Shatner plays the titular father).
But in an era that has already seen - and discarded - remakes of '90s dreck like Melrose Place and 90210, any medium that encourages TV executives to try something new must be a good one.
Let's face it: Taking Facebook too seriously is kind of sad, and something a lot of us have been guilty of. Good thing TV is there to call us on it.
On SNL, after MacGruber made some racially insensitive remarks to Charles Barkley, part of his rehab was becoming "Facebook friends with Spike Lee." And on the season finale episode of The Office, the office's IT guy, Nick (Nelson Franklin), reveals in a fit of rage that Darryl (Craig Robinson) has been lying about being on Facebook. "Why are you lying to everyone?" he yells at Darryl, over disappointed sighs from his coworkers. "People want to be your friend, man."
But the ultimate jab at social networking obsession came earlier in that episode, when perpetually overambitious Ryan (B.J. Novak, who also hosted the 14th annual Webby Awards this year), revealed his latest start-up idea: Woof, "the last word in social networking."
"For $12.99 a month, Woof links up all your communication networks so you're always in reach," he said. Then, demonstrating the service, he pushed a few buttons on his iPhone, and immediately received an instant message, a fax and several pop-up screens and beeps on his desktop. Then, the receptionist's voice is heard over the phone: "Ryan, you have a woof on line one."
Social media may make network TV look antiquated these days, but good TV, apparently, can still have the last laugh.