Networks Find New BFF: The Viewer

Saturday, May 1st, 2010

By Mike Tucker

Cable networks have a new BFF—the viewer. Social media—that curious mix of information and interaction—is all about connections, and cable networks are fostering those connections with their viewers in a variety of ways.

More than 200 million users log in to Facebook daily and spend on average an hour posting notes, uploading pictures and linking stories from other sites. Some of that time is spent on The Weather Channel's Facebook page (90,000 fans). Among fan posts offering local weather updates, you'll find frequent discussions—and debates—about the music selections playing during the network's "Local on the 8s" forecasts. "I'm loving the new music for local on the 8s! Nothing better to start the day than some timpani and Irish fiddling!" one friend wrote.

Twitter, with its 140-character text message limit, posts 50 million tweets daily. Cable fans can follow everyone from msnbc anchor Rachel Maddow (1.6 million followers) to "Burn Notice" creator Matt Nix (4,800 followers) or "American Pickers" star Mike Wolfe (1,500 followers).

Cable networks are all over social media—promoting shows, facilitating fan interaction, launching online initiatives, maintaining fan interest with sneak previews and exclusive videos, and offering a 360 platform to advertisers.

Says Jesse Redniss,VP-digital for USA Network: "Advertisers are starting to ask to be included in our social outreach more often now, and we are looking for creative ways to organically fit their brand messages in with our efforts."

The attitude at USA, the nation's No. 1 cable entertainment network, according to Nielsen Media Research, is about getting in your grill and grabbing your attention. That's how the network likes to promote itself across TV, computer screens and mobile devices on Facebook, MySpace and Twitter—and it knows how to leverage star power.

A recent tweet by "Burn Notice" star Jeffrey Donovan ("Shooting in Miami rain. Nothing stops us!!!") prompted these responses from his 32,000 followers:

  • "Take your shirt off, rain or shine ... day or night it doesn't really matter."
  • "You're a force of nature! And you should take your shirt off—so it doesn't get wet ;)"
  • "Yes, less shirt this next season."

"Fans want to engage with brands as much as we want their feedback," Mr. Redniss says."With the use of social media, we've engaged them on a whole new level, and it's impacting our programming, future story lines and the types of digital entertainment we provide."

One example is Character Arcade, the network's online platform featuring ads, sponsored games and a tie-in with Facebook, where USA claims 1 million fans on its pages (295,000 like "Burn Notice," 262,000 like"Psych").The site also provides chat groups, player challenges and avatars.

"We've built something completely new for the network. By tying the platform to Facebook, we've allowed fans to seamlessly access USA Network games on different sites," Mr. Redniss says. "Character Arcade has provided the network with a completely new set of partners, fans and possible advertisers."

ABC Family loves all its viewers, but it really loves Generation Y, those born in the 1980s and '90s. This group craves interaction and grew up multitasking with the technology employed by social media. Recent research shows 73 percent of online American teens use social networking Web sites, up from 55 percent in 2006.

"The Millennial generation is changing the media world, and we have really embraced them," says Danielle Mullin, VP-marketing. "They go online to gather their information, whether it's for news about their favorite shows or to discover and share new music and artists with their friends. Platforms such as Facebook and Twitter allow us to engage and connect with them on a daily basis, creating a deeper relationship than we can with traditional media tactics."

Carter Covington, executive producer and writer of the network's comedy hit "10 Things I Hate About You," says social media offers immediate feedback—which can be good and bad. "It [is] like an instantaneous focus group: What storylines are people responding to, which characters are popping? Social media is one of the most useful tools creators have.

"It works both ways," he adds. "Sometimes you hear things you don't want to hear. ...I try to stay as objective as possible and remember that it is a tool."

"It's a marketing dream come true to maintain an ongoing dialogue with an engaged group of super fans over the course of several seasons," says Ms. Mullin, who adds that success is measured by fan count, engagement rates, video views and "retweets." "We've discovered that it's not as hard as we thought to build e-friendships with our Millennial viewers, even when we're delivering a marketing message."

WE tv's lifestyle format includes an array of video, blogs and advice on weddings, sex, food, pets, moms and moms-to-be that depends on its Web site and a presence on 15 social media platforms to promote people and programs, and to build audience.

"It's incredibly amazing how fast information is shared and how far-reaching social media is as a platform," says Kenetta Bailey, senior VP-marketing for WE tv and "Wedding Central." "You can post a video and a few days later it's been spread to thousands of people, many of [whom] are potential new viewers."

David Tutera, host of WE tv's original series "My Fair Wedding," enjoys the company of 28,000 friends on Facebook and appreciates the power of the social platforms. "Social media has been a great way to connect with fans and share additional information in real time on what is happening with my career, filming, speaking engagements, book releases," the celebrity party planner says.

That sentiment is music to the ears of WE tv's marketing team, which now routinely uses social media to create a stronger bond with fans by posting exclusive sneak peeks, answering viewers' questions and, in turn, asking their opinions on shows and contests. Ms. Bailey suggests that social platforms will play an even larger role in future marketing.

As popular as Facebook and Twitter are for entertainment programming, they have taken on a whole new meaning at cable news networks.

Nearly 60 percent of Americans get their news from a combination of on- and offline sources, according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center. The Internet is currently the third most popular news platform, after local and national TVnews.

The Pew report says 37 percent of Internet users have contributed to the creation of news, commented about it or shared it via postings on social media sites. For news outlets such as NBC News, that means viewers and users will want more interaction and to read the tweets of news personalities David Gregory, Ann Curry and Rachel Maddow who together have more than 4 million followers on Twitter.

"When it comes to Twitter ... one surprise for me has been the extent to which you can actually convey journalism in 140 characters," says Mark Lukasiewicz, VP-NBC News specials and digital media. "Our goal is to be in any place that people are absorbing, sharing, discussing and contributing news and information. Increasingly, social media is that kind of place."