From watching to making: how viewers’ social interactions with shows are influencing entertainment

Around the world, advertisers are trying to involve their audiences in the marketing, whether it’s Wendy’s love songs, Airbnb’s Hollywood & Vines, Newcastle’s crappy crowdsourcing or, locally, Give it a V and Feel Tip Top. TV shows have long talked about doing the same, and many of them have taken fandom into the realm of social media. But increasingly it seems broadcasters are not content with audiences passively absorbing content and are trying to convince them to get involved. So how’s that working out for them? 

Jono and Ben at Ten is a show that plays on a Friday night but is on all through the week, dropping bits of meat into the social media kennel to keep the fans interested. Its Pick a Laugh skit took that a bit further by asking viewers to comment online and dictate how the story played out. It’s not going to win an Oscar, but it’s one of the few examples of audience interaction being used to dictate the content.

Current affairs programmes have long tried to bring viewer commentary in to the show (Seven Sharp was accused of going too far in that regard when it launched), and they also now screen what viewers are interested in after gathering feedback. 

Rachel Lorimer, Mediaworks group head of corporate communications, says Campbell Live has an extremely active Facebook Page it uses to ask questions and set some of the topics.

“If you look at the social media pages of TV3 news, you see incredibly interesting conversations between viewers, talking about what they think about this and that. There’s a high level of conversation … The Paul Henry Show also does segments using social media reaction and audience feedback, and the 9 in 10 game played live at venues around the country is a different kind of audience involvement.”

But the more important question here is: who the hell would still pay 50c to send a text these days? These people are almost as mysterious as Nielsen’s 600 person panel. 

The Block NZ, which launches on Tuesday, added the ‘People’s Choice’ voting system last year. And this year it will use its programme partner Kiwibank to create a second screen game called Block Out Live to play live with the show (apparentlyThe Block is a show Kiwis enjoy watching live, as opposed to recording it and watching it later). It’s a bingo-like game, where people wait for things to appear on the show and have a board with nine blocks to clear. The first person to do it gets a $100 gift card, and there are spot prizes too. 

In a statement, MediaWorks said: “Each episode sees fans take to Twitter and Facebook in droves to discuss the show as it unfolds on TV3, and thousands of Kiwis attended public open homes, and voted for the people’s choice award. Block Out Live offers yet another opportunity for fans to share their viewing experience with fellow Block-a-holics.”

Second screen app Pluk was used in previous seasons, and for other ad campaigns, but a lack of traction in Australia meant it was shut down after 18 months.

The X Factor NZ was another show MediaWorks says had high engagement. It ran over ten weeks of live shows, and it says it became the most socialised TV show in New Zealand. The Facebook community now numbers over 152,000 fans, and last year had up to 70,000 people actively talking about the programme at any one time, with individual status updates having an organic reach of 300,000 users. Every episode trended on Twitter in New Zealand, and #xfactornz has been the top worldwide trending topic multiple times. 

Occasionally, things the fans were up to during the week were addressed on the show. “For example, we had a wild card addition, Fletcher, to the top 12 or 13, which had a lot of controversy. Fletcher got cyberbullied – people were saying he got in just because he was good looking – and we worked with him through that. It was addressed on air the next week, discussed between the judges,” says Lorimer.

X Factor also had Coke Choice. Voting through a Facebook app, the audience got to pick one song per contestant throughout the week that would be sung on air, from out of three options. “This is a good example of a sponsor allowing the audience to have a say on how the show operated that week.”

Lorimer says it’s crucial for advertisers to know that a show has audience engagement. “It’s the ‘talking about’ metric on Facebook that measures active engagement, rather than the fan count,” she says.

But she says audience engagement is nothing new. “In the old days, we’d watch shows like soap operas and phone each other in the ad breaks. When America’s Top Model first came out, people would get together at someone’s house to watch it. People still do that but now you can also be a part of the community in your own home. We think of our brands as existing across channels, each of our brands has broad footprints.”

But audience participation or even dictation does depend on the type of show. Shows filmed daily or weekly can do it more easily, whereas many dramas are filmed in advance. Shortland Street, for example, has a four-month delay, so the audience can’t influence that content, although they did get to have a bit of fun during the summer with the summer campaign and TVNZ recently proved that humans are very strange creatures after the a tributes page it created for the (fictional) death of character Sarah Potts went a bit mad. 

Colmar Brunton’s recent study on media consumption for NZ on Air showed that while there was plenty of talk by broadcasters about audience engagement via social media, it’s still fairly niche, with one in five New Zealanders (20 percent) ever talking about a TV show on Facebook (15-24s were 43 percent and 25-34s were 33 percent). Just three percent of New Zealanders and six percent of 15-34s had ever used Twitter to talk to about a TV show. And perhaps as a result, Andrew Shaw, general manager of commissioning for TVNZ, is reluctant to get excited about audience participation as a trend.

He says audience influence may be a trend on the right show—that is, one designed to share the narrative with the public and make them feel like they have a hand in the outcome—but he doesn’t think it’s a trend in general.

Seven Sharp clearly encourages feedback and opinion from the public, but none of our big performers, apart from NZ’s Got Talent, where the audience votes, have audience influence. It’s not on MasterChef, not part of My Kitchen Rules [although it is offering a voting app for the upcoming NZ version], not in our dramas or comedies,” he says. “Every broadcaster these days monitors carefully the social media networks to gauge public opinion, but I wouldn’t say there’s a trend in the audience determining the outcome, I’m not seeing that as being huge growth.”

He does say, however, that these days with public feedback there’s a lot more opportunity for broadcasters to know what the audience would want to watch, which is useful when deciding whether to renew or develop a show. And the most famous recent example of that is House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, which Netflix proved there was a market for through the use of viewer data

But why just have viewers when you could have makers? Joseph Gordon Levitt has also embraced the connected, creative world with a show called Hit Record, which is running on US cable channel Piviot and is made from contributions from around the world via a website

A recent article in The Guardian talked about an app that let footy fans discuss the game as it happened, with their thoughts showing up on the screen in real time. But Gavin Douglas, chief commercial officer of iPowow involved with the app, thinks about audience participation as more than a trend.

“Participation TV isn’t a trend. Interaction and participation is how we will continue to consume media and entertainment moving forward. TV no longer has to be unidirectional, which changes the way we are thinking about creating entertainment. People want to participate with the content to make the experience more personal and connected. Story will always be the most important part of the experience, but giving viewers a chance to engage on a deeper level, if done right, will enhance both the story and viewing experience,” he says.

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