Live TV = social media

Like movies, music, and books, television is transitioning to digital forms. The availability of technology (a broad term encompassing DVR, streaming, iTunes, and all things questionably legal) has turned live viewing into a prehistoric concept.

Students especially subscribe to delayed viewing — night classes and meetings plague us, and communal viewing is slowly fading away. We watch TV at different speeds. “Spoiler alert!” precedes most discussions and it’s inescapable: we care more about our academics. Right?

This is a sad reality for TV today. We watch more than ever (people tell me weekly, &ldquo;I watch <em>a lot</em> of TV&rdquo;), yet ratings continue to sink because live viewing is countered by substitutes like Netflix and Hulu. The industry&rsquo;s model is changing, and anyone trained in basic economics can identify the laws driving the change.

Exceptions exist though: shows that <em>absolutely necessitate</em> live, communal viewing. Obvious examples are reality competitions and sports. <em>American Idol </em>(which has improved with judge Harry Connick Jr.) demands live viewing so you can vote for your favourite contestant. And sports, well, who watches the Super Bowl five hours after it&rsquo;s over?

For <em>scripted</em> programs, however, few shows have solved the death of live viewing like Shonda Rimes&rsquo; <em>Scandal</em>. ABC holds Wednesday night parties at 10 p.m. where tweeters &mdash; fans and critics alike &mdash; live-tweet the episode. The twisting, nonsensical plot compels viewers to react, and doing it together makes it all the more fun.

We love reacting to White House scandals and affairs involving highly-public people, making <em>Scandal</em> a timely entry into our popular culture. TV emphasizes the escalation of a plot and paying it off: when shit hits the fan, it&rsquo;s exciting. <em>Scandal </em>eschews that for a reality-mimicking model: it just happens and we deal with the fallout.

Even better, it happens in every episode. Betrayals, assassinations, hostage situations, spycraft, and affairs are rampant in the fast-paced <em>Scandal</em>, and after a viewer gets used to the shock, it simply becomes a thrill to tweet along.

Rimes goes further than an exciting, must-watch product: her cast &mdash; relative unknowns &mdash; also live-tweet during episodes to engage fans. Superfan &ldquo;leaders&rdquo; rally groups of tweeters. And Twitter affects people: when major events happen and everyone tweets the designated hashtag, there&rsquo;s social media peer pressure to join in.

Few other shows have achieved &ldquo;social media phenomenon&rdquo; the way <em>Scandal</em> has. Networks with teenage audiences naturally attract sizable Twitter audiences (MTV with <em>Teen Wolf</em>, ABC Family with <em>Pretty Little Liars</em>), but in general, the big four (CBS, ABC, NBC, FOX) lack social media engagement with their audiences. A hashtag in the bottom right corner of the screen hardly works &mdash; it&rsquo;s essentially the minimum effort.

<em>Scandal</em> is the exception that proves the rule though. Rimes&rsquo; strategy is, in hindsight, obvious &mdash; engage Twitter! &mdash; but execution is difficult. The median viewer is over age 40, and Twitter isn&rsquo;t a toy they grew up with. If you were a CBS executive, how do you persuade more people to watch and tweet about <em>The Good Wife</em>?

Here at <em>Imprint</em>, we prioritize social media, but most of you &mdash; young students! &mdash; don&rsquo;t click on our links. You&rsquo;re too busy and your time is spent on cooler parts of the Internet which have crossed a &ldquo;value threshold&rdquo; for you. Established social media products offer multiple values: relevance (do I care?), timeliness (do I care now?), and engagement (do others care?).

For TV, in many cases, viewers don&rsquo;t know what they care about until it&rsquo;s shown to them. Some creators understand the zeitgeist (zombies, apocalypse, violence) and capitalize on their relevance, but hit shows, like viral videos, are often accidental. The widespread engagement of crazy reality programs like <em>Duck Dynasty</em> has led to their cultural relevance, but few could&rsquo;ve predicted <em>Duck</em>&rsquo;s virality. Scripted programs face an even steeper uphill battle towards social media engagement. What will be a live hit and become relevant? For TV executives, it&rsquo;s one more puzzle piece in today&rsquo;s ratings race.

<em>Andrew Koo (@akoo) would really like you to watch and tweet about </em>The Good Wife.


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