Broadcast and cable networks are rushing to explore ways in which they can keep viewers tuned in, interested and engaged in conversations using social media. They are scrambling to add social elements to TV shows because it’s pretty clear that social media will increase viewer engagement for those viewers who are already watching. What’s harder to determine is whether live Tweet streams, synched co-viewing apps and other social bells and whistles actually increase the number of viewers tuning in.

“It’s still the Wild West as it relates to where this is going and where it will evolve,” said Kristin Frank, general manager of MTV and VH1 digital.

Marketers like to point out that television has always been a social medium. Family and friends watch programs together. Co-workers discuss what they watched on TV last night. But viewers who interact with programs using a second screen extend their social universe past the couch or the water cooler. Not only are they engaged — perhaps even hyper engaged – with the programming they are watching, they are engaged with a vast community of people who are connected only by the television show they all watch. But do those people, the Twittering classes, drive ratings?

The recent MTV Video Music Awards garnered the highest ratings in the show’s history. It also set a new high water mark for concurrent tweeting: VMA-related tweets came in at 8,868 per second while the program aired. Although it’s tempting to draw a line between the awards show’s high ratings and the audience’s enthusiastic social engagement, there is no real way to determine if ratings drove the Twitter bus, Twitter drove ratings or the two were in separate busses that happened to be on the same road at the same time.

For now, Frank says she sees the network’s extensive social offerings as a value-added proposition for both viewers and advertisers, with ratings as an implicit rather than explicit bonus. “Our goal is to be where our audience is and to program to all of the platforms,” she said. “Advertisers want to come along because we’re packaging the cross platform experience.”

NBCUniversal’s Bravo was early to the social media party and has embraced the channel wholeheartedly.  Because many of the network’s unscripted series involved some sort of fan voting, both the fans and the network became accustomed to interacting with each other, first through SMS and then through Twitter and Facebook. The channel has also had success enabling viewers to interact with the network’s reality show stars, who now routinely live tweet while their shows are aired.

According to Lisa Hsia, EVP of Bravo Digital, the audience was receptive almost immediately. “Social media changed our game,” she said. “We were able to offer viewers a live water cooler social experience. You could Facebook and Twitter while the show was on and engage with the Bravolebrities. The viewers love talking to them and talking to each other.”

Hsia thinks that convincing viewers to tune in to both channels of programming may have an effect on program ratings: she said that engaging users with second screen experiences increases viewership during a program’s first airing. Rather than recording programming and watching it later, viewers watch programs during the premier broadcast in order to participate in the ongoing second-screen conversation. “People want to meet in real time and talk about it as it is happening.”

Although it is virtually impossible to judge whether tweets fuel tune-ins, Hsia is convinced that Bravo’s comprehensive approach, which now includes a synched co-viewing app that pushes additional content to smartphones and tablets and social talk bubbles, has had an impact on numbers. According to Hsia, Bravo’s social experiments drove 10 percent ratings growth.

Television executives accustomed to standardized ratings that reveal the popularity of programming are, not surprisingly, cautious about a platform for which there is no agreed upon measuring stick. But, according Kristine Segrist, managing director, Search and Social MEC, speaking at a recent symposium on social television, measuring social’s impact on ratings won’t be simple. She said that there might not be a single metric, comparable to a Nielsen rating, on which networks and brands can rely.

“You can’t forget the interactive element,” she said.  “There may not be a simple apples to apples way to measure the impact of social media on ratings.”

 

 

 

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