Socially Awkward TV Efforts Point to the Future

Fox 'Twee-Peat' Found Bulky, but Networks Still See Value in Experiments

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Turns out, turning TV from a lean-back medium to a lean-forward one is not so easy, but that doesn't mean folks don't keep trying.

Joe Earley, exec VP-marketing and communications, Fox
Joe Earley, exec VP-marketing and communications, Fox
With the rise of social media, broadcasters are eager to prove their programming can adapt. Early successes such as CNN and Facebook teaming up for Election Day 2008 have inspired others to try their own melding of TV programming and social media.

Take Fox's "twee-peat" experiment last week. The network aired a rerun of sci-fi drama "Fringe" that ran a Twitter feed at the bottom of the screen, paired with a third showing of the pilot for "Glee," also with a Twitter feed. Both featured comments and responses by actors and producers involved.

"The goal here was interaction with the talent using the Twitter format," said Joe Earley, Fox's exec VP-marketing and communications. "So the talent commented about the scene, they talked to each other and then they talked with fans."

As Fox learned, however, TV networks must exercise some degree of caution, even when it comes to adding content to material that has already been viewed by a substantial audience. Introducing a running stream of tweets to the broadcast posed challenges: Each had to be vetted for suitability to run on a broadcast network. Indeed, Mr. Earley said, "Some of the shorter tweets were up on screen a bit longer than I would have liked them to be. That was because the next tweet that was coming was longer and it was still being vetted."

Balancing act
Thanks to the opening credits, which the network did not cover in tweets, Fox had a bit of a delay to work with -- and it came in handy. A company that used its marketing logo for its avatar picture tried to send in some tweets during the first few minutes of "Fringe"; Fox kept it off the air.

More important than logistics were fans' concerns. While Fox found that people watching the third showing of "Glee" enjoyed the Twitter feed immensely, viewers of the "Fringe" repeat were not as enthusiastic as those who watched the third airing of the "Glee" pilot, Mr. Earley said. "As the environment is a little bit more fractured, it's likely that people coming to that repeat might be watching it for the first time," he said. Responding to viewers, Fox decided to make the Twitter stream smaller during its broadcast of "Glee," which ran one day later.

"My takeaway is for the first repeat of a show, especially a show like 'Fringe,' I wouldn't do that intensive Twitter experience on screen, because it's the type of show where you are searching for clues," and that draws a very passionate audience, Mr. Earley said.

Other factors helped make the Twitter stream on "Glee" more of a success. "Glee" talent had already established Twitter accounts, Mr. Earley said, and they saw followers increase after the "Glee" twee-peat. "Fringe" personnel had to establish a presence on Twitter especially for the episode.

With would-be couch potatoes facing multiple lures -- shows recorded on DVR and new kinds of entertainment on iPods and the web -- it's challenging enough to get viewers to watch first-run episodes of network offerings. Fox's effort continues the fight on another front: getting people to tune in to a repeat as well.

Testing ground
Walt Disney's ABC has also tested these waters, dressing up reruns of "Lost" in 2008. According to ABC, average viewers for reruns of the drama increased to 5 million when the enhancements were include in the 2008-2009 season, compared with an average of about 3.9 million for "plain" reruns in 2006-2007. CBS, for its part, has run themed trivia questions and behind-the-scenes notes about production on episodes of both "Ghost Whisperer" and "CSI: Miami."

It's easy to see how social-media activity could eventually be used to prove consumers' engagement with a show, and thus make it more valuable to advertisers.

Fox's experiment with Twitter speaks to the growing interactivity of the one-way medium of broadcast TV. Thanks to developments with set-top boxes, TV viewers are increasingly able to use their remote controls to do a lot more than change channels.

"This is the tip of the iceberg," said John Moore, director-ideas and innovation at Interpublic Group's Mullen agency.

In the future Mr. Moore envisions a more free-flowing Twitter experience for TV programs. "Rather than having tweets from the cast and producers, they should have maybe thought about having it from fans of the show," he said, "because if I'm looking at tweets from the cast and producers, I'm already seeing a subjective slant, which is a little antithetical to social media."

As a broadcaster, Fox may not be able to allow a completely free stream of raw comments to pop up on its screen.

Tailoring the experience
Fox will continue to tinker with the idea, Mr. Earley said, keeping in mind that it may not be suitable for all genres and programs, and certainly isn't appropriate for first-run episodes. The network could consider a "hybrid" such as an online simulcast that would allow some viewers to "opt in or opt out" of the feature, he said.

And despite blocking the advertiser logo during "Fringe," the Fox executive suggested the network would indeed be open to incorporating advertisers into the mix. "I certainly wouldn't rule it out," he said, though the more pressing concern is making a twee-peat experience as optimal as possible "so everyone can get what they want while watching the show on the screen."

Incidentally, these twee-peats are only the latest attempt by TV networks to give viewers some means of offering comments and remarks while watching a program. Both MTV and Noggin set up a way that allowed viewers to send in text comments that would scroll on screen during some programming.

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