NBC Universal's President of Research and Media Development, Alan Wurtzel, made waves a couple of days ago in an interview with the Financial Times when he claimed that social media "is not a game changer yet" in driving television viewing. The revelation was a bit of a shock to those of us who regularly see hashtags planted in the corner of our favorite television shows, and assumed that we were the only ones not tweeting at every discussion-worthy plot twist.
As it turns out, Wurtzel drew his conclusions based on the Winter Olympics, which NBC had exclusive rights to broadcast. Across the 1500+ hours of coverage over 18 days, his team's research found that approx 3 million unique users, or about 19% of the television viewing audience, posted 10.6 million Tweets, and around 20 million people somehow engaged with Olympics-related commentary on Facebook. His conclusion? Popular shows drive social media activity, not the other way around.
Not everyone agrees with his conclusion. Kate Sirkin, head of Starcom MediaVest Group's global research, suggests that relatively rare international events like the Olympics are a bit of an anomaly, while more niche programs could benefit from social media comarketing.
Sirkin's conclusion, at its face, make sense. Massive televised events that already become watercooler fodder due to their scale alone might see social media buzz as a result, not a cause, of their popularity. But other programming that doesn't suck all the oxygen out of the room could see social media chatter fueling much-needed attention.
Take, for instance, cable dramas like The Walking Dead, which has seen its ratings fortunes grow year after year (an average of 5.24 million viewers in its first season, more than doubling to 13.3 million in its fourth). Although increasing marketing has helped propel the show to its enormous popularity, social media posts, including Tweets by stars Norman Reedus and Steven Yuen, and anticipatory hashtags (#TheWalkingDeadin15, etc.) help drive up pre-airing buzz. Official announcements and teasers released by the show days and moments before the show airs also help seize some social media mind share. Given its relative short term and live broadcast nature, none of this would be possible for the Olympics.
Hashtags can also encourage viewers to tune in and participate at the time of broadcast, instead of catching the show (and skipping commercials) later via Tivo or BitTorrent. And Jean-Philippe Maheu, Managing Director of Global Brand and Agency Strategy at Twitter makes a good, and related, point: "People who are tweeting don't go to the kitchen or bathroom—they stay in the room. They may not watch everything about ads, but they are watching."
Much of the value of robust social media engagement can also be attributed to feeding a community of dedicated fans. Along with webisodes, apps, and other innovative forms of digital marketing, active social media interaction with fans can sustain a show's mention in between broadcasts and while on hiatus. A season's cliffhanger can be the source of lots of speculation and wagers among a show's uber-fans.
While it's no surprise that any phenomenon like social media can have its impact oversold, underselling it is likewise possible. Given the dynamic and complex nature of the television-social media nexus, it's too early to write off Twitter's and Facebook's ability to sustain and grow TV show viewership. We are not even close to understanding the full influence of the second screen on the small screen.