Once upon a time, fall meant an end to a long slog of summer reruns and the arrival of all-new Must See TV. While this has changed in recent years as cable networks and streaming providers release new shows year-round, fall is still when broadcast networks release their latest and greatest shows, showcasing the best of what they have to offer each year.
And as they have for many falls, audiences will take to Twitter and other social media to discuss, pass judgement or just ignore the new shows. This annual ritual has become so ingrained that TV ratings now include social mentions in their calculations. But capturing the zeitgeist about a TV show is more than an exercise in counting tweets. Networks use Twitter to build an early audience while keeping a close eye on not only how many people talk about a new show, but how far those tweets reach, and what topics capture audience attention.
Today's incredibly competitive media environment means the cancellation axe falls earlier than ever, so building an initial audience is key to survival for a new series. The days of the networks allowing a show to build slowly are long gone. “Cheers,” for example, was 74th in the Nielsen rankings its first year; Sam and the gang wouldn't stand a chance today. Today, smart networks seed the audience by marketing their programs on social media early, piquing interest with teaser trailers, photos from behind the scenes, stories about production, and contests.
Take Fox's new show, “Scream Queens,” which premieres this month. They started sharing teasers for the show in the spring, and have developed a strong voice on Twitter in the past few months, posting GIFs and photos of the cast and generating a ton of pre-show buzz.
This begs the question, however. Does social conversation volume predict success? If you generate enough buzz on Twitter, will your show make it? Well, in many cases tweet volume is correlated to a show's success. The shows that generate the most tweets and social posts are typically the ones that also generate larger TV audiences and subsequently more ad dollars, and vice versa.
Take historically socially strong shows like “The Walking Dead” and “Pretty Little Liars,” two of the most tweeted-about shows on television. Both will start their sixth seasons soon and show no sign of slowing down. On the other hand, not every tweeted-about show gets to stick around; NBC's “Smash” was a big hit on Twitter for a while, but was eventually canceled.
Success is not just about tweet numbers, though. It's also about what people say. Many networks use more advanced tactics like measuring sentiment and monitoring content to help determine a show's success. In terms of sentiment analysis, networks want to know if the tweets about a show were positive or negative. And does that sentiment change week after week? If sentiment starts to trend downward, that can signal a loss in excitement, and may be the death knell for a show.
It's particularly important to think beyond simple sentiment classifications and focus on the content of the tweets about a show. How is the audience talking about the characters and storyline? What do they like or not like? What do they want to see more of? What do they have questions about? What are they excited about? If used appropriately, social media can be a giant focus group, giving networks a chance to hear what exactly an audience thinks about a show or story line, which can help them make or market a show better.
So over the next few weeks, we'll see how this all plays out. Grab yourself a pumpkin spice latte, fire up Twitter, and settle in to watch the role social media plays in determining the fate of this fall's crop of new shows.