Set Your Televisions To 'Engage'

TV has a problem: You’re as likely to fast-forward through those paid ad spots as you are to skim-read this blog post, and that’s not news to anyone. Driven by a quest to keep audiences captive in a media landscape that is increasingly competitive, big networks are taking equally big chances on technology-enabled innovations such as “Instant Save” on NBC’s “The Voice” -- a live interactive component in which the home audience is given five minutes to decide live on air which contestants stay and which go -- that point the way forward for broadcast television, providing the “x-factor” that other media cannot match. Real-time interactivity is here to stay, but its road to mass adoption still has a few hurdles to jump, namely the country's staggered time zones, big-dollar advertiser interests, and how networks bake interaction into the production as opposed to tacking it on after the fact.

It’s obvious why TV producers and network executives love real-time engagement: It means people are watching. To quote Paul Telegdy, president of alternative and late night programming at NBC: “We are literally putting the power in the hands of our viewers, granting them a direct way to affect the fate of the artists competing during the live telecast.” Now, this won’t halt the trend toward time-shifted viewing, but it will make live scheduled viewing a premium product to sell above and alongside on-demand consumption. It will also have a profound impact on how we create, schedule and sell television content: Viewers can be quantified and monetized beyond simply an aggregate ratings value.



Another challenge facing real-time engagement: those pesky time zones. I doubt the federal government will turn the U.S. into a single time zone, but are we that far off from networks simply playing out event TV programming (such as competition shows) in one broadcast as they currently do with sports and major awards shows? If you’re a time-shifter in any case, what difference would this make, other than to make the live experience that much better for folks who want to watch that way, (and advertisers who want to buy that way)?

Ah, advertisers. For all the challenges to the model of television, marketing dollar commitment is still driving the monetization train (and will for the foreseeable future), albeit with more metrics than just Nielsen-metered homes. The benefits to advertisers and sponsors of real-time audience interactivity are obvious: If they can marry the ability of TV for mass-scale brand awareness with personalization, digital activation and, ultimately, “transactions,” then this is close to nirvana for most advertisers. It’s also likely to result in major changes in how advertising is packaged and sold over time, which could take the form of:

  • A reduction in airtime dedicated to spot advertising (a major improvement in the viewer experience in itself)
  • A further shift to in-show brand integrations
  • Further blurring of the line between content and the commercials that surround it -- why not employ real-time viewer participation in the ad breaks, top-and-tailed within the programming.

Putting tweets or posts to air is a very basic example, but we already know that allowing viewers to truly impact the on-air narrative, such as with the “Instant Save” mentioned earlier, drives engagement tenfold. Better viewer engagement translates to increased brand recall, as well as a deeper relationship and information about audience behavior, so we expect to see an increase in mechanics that drive viewers to participate in all types of broadcast content.

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