The fall has always been a big time for the television industry as it ramps up for a whole new season of programming. However, attention is also being lavished on the so-called "second screen," the computer, tablet or smartphone screen that viewers are increasingly keeping open, particularly to tweet about their favorite shows.
Over the past year or so, Twitter has been making a number of significant moves into the TV space. It's hired execs with ties to the television community, such as Fred Graver who has written, produced and created a number of shows, and Jennifer Prince, who previously led media and entertainment ad sales for Google.
The television industry is paying attention, and not just those in charge of a network's bottom line. Even the creative forces behind television shows have acknowledged the impact Twitter has had on their relationship with viewers. "When you realize when 50 people on social media are misunderstanding that in the same exact way, that's something we have to correct," Robert King, "The Good Wife" co-creator said in a New York Times-hosted TV producer roundtable conversation about Twitter.
When Twitter talks about its expansion into the TV industry, the company stresses that its approach is not about "disruption" – a common term in the tech world – but "synergy." Unlike other Internet media companies, Twitter has made no plans – publicly anyway – to produce content meant to compete with television. Rather than seeking out a bigger slice of the television pie, Twitter says it wants to make the pie bigger for everyone: for television, for its advertisers, and of course, for Twitter.
Leading this effort is Graver, head of Twitter TV, whose team develops Twitter's place in the television industry. Twitter works with television execs to show them the best way to use the platform to promote their programming, talks to network contacts on a weekly basis and often hosts seminars on best practices for shows' publicity and marketing teams. And no one will deny that Twitter is an invaluable resource to the television industry. "It's now part of the fabric of how we promote the shows," one Chris Ender, CBS's executive vice president of communications, says. says.
Of course, it's ultimately up to networks to determine how to best use Twitter, and some even claim some of the credit for Twitter's growth in the space.
"We were the first people to do anything on Twitter around a television show and we have had many firsts along the way," says Fox's President of Digital Media David Wertheimer, citing the 2007 Fox show "Drive."
"Twitter has started to realize how important TV is and what a huge percentage of the content on Twitter is about what's on TV," he says.
Wertheimer describes Fox's social media strategy as a combination of producing micro-content (content for a show's Twitter and other social media platforms), shareable content (which fans of a show can share on their own accounts) and driving the conversation on Twitter and elsewhere, before, during and after a show's airtime (and even between seasons). The exact combination depends on the specific show. Even shows as similar as "The Mindy Project" and "New Girl" – both comedies of related subject matter geared to the same demographic that air back-to-back – have their own particular approaches.
Likewise at CBS and its other properties, social media strategy is developed on a case-by-case basis. "A majority of the work happens at the show level," says Marc DeBevoise, CBS Interactive executive vice president and general manager of entertainment, sports and news. Members of his team work with a show's individual publicists, producers and talent to come up with their strategy. "The main feature has always been live chatting and tweeting and self promotion – getting talent involved with audience directly to really engage the audience before, during and after shows," DeBevoise says. (Multiple industry sources praise ABC's "Scandal" and its showrunner Shonda Rhimes as being pioneers on this front.)
DeBevoise also stressed live events being a key strength in CBS's social media strategy. Its broadcasts of the Super Bowl and the Grammys are among the most tweeted-about televised events ever (the 2013 Super Bowl held the tweet-per-minute record – 268,000 tweets per minute during Beyonce and Destiny Child's halftime show – until Sunday's MTV Video Music Awards).
Also reflective of the Twitter era is the decision to broadcast a performance-centric live event, such as the Grammys, on a taped delay for later time zones, with the hope that East Coast social media buzz about big moments will drive West Coast audiences to turn on their TVs for their primetime showing.
Twitter has no doubt become a serious consideration in television marketing strategy. "We certainly have experimented," DeBevoise says of buying Twitter ad space. Another network source said social media can make up as much as half of a show's publicity campaign. However, the next step in Twitter and television's growing relationship is connecting that shared audience to advertisers.
"How do we bring in the sponsors who help bring those shows on the air? How do we help them to engage the audiences in a way they want to be engaged?" Wertheimer says.
Through its TV ad targeting program, announced in May, Twitter can help advertisers connect what viewers are seeing on TV with what they are seeing on Twitter. You might see a company's ad on television, and if you're tweeting about the show, the company can send a promoted tweet for the same product to your Twitter feed – a combination that Twitter says delivers 95 percent stronger message association and 58 percent higher purchase intent than just seeing the TV ad by itself.
Another product launched in May, Amplify takes this ad targeting one step further by taking TV programming and its advertisements, and repackaging it as photos, videos and other media in the viewer's Twitter feed. Twitter first started experimenting with Amplify with sports programming – with Tweets airing instant replays of big plays, ads often included. It has since expanded into the entertainment space; MTV and its sponsors used Amplify for the VMAs. Twitter has announced other partnerships with conventional channels such as A&E, FOX and BBC America as well as nontraditional content producers, including Vice, Vevo and MLB.com.
"It's about a public communication forum and it's about being interactive – giving fans a way to feel like they can be a part of the conversation," says Glenn Otis Brown, Twitter's director of promoted content and sponsorships and Amplify's chief.
Twitter also announced in December a partnership with Nielsen, a well trusted viewership metrics company, to further cement Twitter's relationship with the television industry and its advertisers. Twitter and Nielsen are working on a system, the "Nielsen Twitter TV Rating," that measures a show's social media engagement to complement Nielsen's viewership ratings.
"I think it's good for the industry generally to have metrics that we can all agree upon," Wertheimer says. However, the tie between Twitter and ratings are being taken with a grain of salt.
"I think everybody knows that [Twitter] now is in the promotional DNA for all things television, but I think the cause and effect relationship is still very much being evaluated," one network executive says, later adding, "The actual number of people watching the show is far more important to us and our advertisers than just the people tweeting about it."
In part, it's a chicken and egg problem: Is a show being tweeted about a lot because a lot of people are already watching, or is all that social media buzz in fact driving bigger audiences?
A recent report by Twitter and Nielsen concluded that at least some of the time, it's the latter, with 29 percent of instances studied showing that Twitter activity caused an uptick in viewership. Nielsen said the report's findings will help it shape its future metrics on Twitter and television. However, even without a ratings system, TV execs are taking the Twittersphere seriously.
"The correlation is obvious and clear, the causation is not," DeBevoise says. "To us the correlation is enough to make us want to be involved."