First Network, Then Cable, Now There's 'Social TV'

Networks Try to Hold, Build Audiences With Facebook and Twitter

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NEW YORK ( -- TV has for decades aimed to deliver water-cooler moments, from "Who Shot J.R.?" right on through to the return of Dr. Izzie Stevens on "Grey's Anatomy" last week. What TV hasn't been able to do is keep hold of its audience once people move from watching these shows to talking about them -- until now. Using new social-media tools, producers are trying to build up their old-media offerings and beef up their audiences for advertisers.

"We are in the early, early stages of what is now kind of being deemed 'social TV,'" said John Moore, exec VP-director of media services at Interpublic Group's Mullen agency. He envisions more TV programming having a built-in social component over the next decade. Consumers between the ages of 18 and 24 "don't want this isolated TV experience," which he thinks will prompt TV networks to connect their content to Twitter, Facebook, MySpace and various widgets that will be packaged with a new breed of TV sets.

Companies that produce TV shows are trying to monitor when fans talk about the programs, then harness that chatter as another tool for sponsors. Getting the attention of someone who is texting, tweeting or talking about a TV show might still be good enough, after all, if you can't get them to watch the TV show in the old-school manner.

Viewers of recent episodes of Warner Bros.' syndicated "Ellen DeGeneres Show" watched as Jeannie, one of the program's production assistants, drove across the country in a new 2010 Terrain from General Motors' GMC. But fans that follow the show's Twitter feed, @TheEllenShow, also had the chance to participate in a gas-card giveaway from GMC. As of Nov. 6, 2009, Ms. DeGeneres has 3.6 million followers on Twitter, third only to Ashton Kutcher and Britney Spears, Warner Bros. said.

"We're sort of reaching out to new platforms that we haven't looked at previously," said Mary Kubitskey, manager-national advertising and sales promotions for GMC. "We know how we engage the consumer through sports and entertainment and through some really nice home-improvement platforms. I'm trying to use the media company as a way to engage via Twitter."

Whatever screen works
Meanwhile, Walt Disney's ESPN has begun offering advertisers the chance to sponsor web pages that aggregate tweets from different personalities associated with the sports-media giant. And NBC is unveiling the Communicator, a downloadable tool that lets fans talk to each other via computer desktop even as it sends them ad-supported video clips of NBC content, said Stephen Andrade, senior VP-digital development and general manager, No matter what screen consumers use to watch TV content, he said, "it shouldn't really matter, as long as we can monetize it and measure it for ratings purposes."

Already, some shows are trying to demonstrate how well they can work with new social-media dynamics. Time Warner's TBS ran a scroll of selected tweets from fans of its new late-night "Lopez Tonight" show on high-definition screens in Times Square and in about 300 bars around the country. Walt Disney's ABC recently unveiled a new feature for its video player that allows users to read comments from show producers and writers, while adding their own commentary, also sharable on Facebook. ABC launched the feature with the first online availability of the premiere episode of sci-fi thriller "V" and said it intends to roll it out "across other series on over the coming weeks."

News Corp.'s Fox boldly tested the technology on its own air in September. The network aired reruns of "Glee" and "Fringe" with tweets from fans and creative people involved with the show at the bottom of the screen, but admitted the idea needed some retooling when some viewers expressed displeasure at having the screen covered when they were trying to watch the on-screen action.

For media outlets, social-media extensions are seen as something that might enhance the core TV property. "Extending the customer base to online is going to broaden your demographic push," said David Dickman, senior VP-digital media, Warner Bros. Digital. "The digital aspect is going to broaden out that base and just bring more people into the fold."

Some initial attempts might be clumsy. Ad and media executives caution that they can't be seen as usurpers of Facebook newsfeeds or Twitter conversations, but rather need to demonstrate their ability to offer a reward in exchange for consumer interest. As part of the "Ellen" effort, for example, GMC's own Twitter feed, ThisIsGMC, will direct fans to a website where they can see exclusive "Ellen" program content.

TV fans can expect more on this front in the weeks and months to come. "I don't know what happens next, but we have to try different things," said GMC's Ms. Kubitskey.

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