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Effects of social media buzz push shows to pursue new audience-building strategies

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014 10:00 a.m. CDT

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — In July, “Dallas” star Linda Gray stood beside the pool at the Beverly Hilton Hotel during an evening party celebrating the 25th anniversary of TNT.

She pulled out her iPhone and aimed it at the pool where a light projected an image of the TNT logo. She snapped a picture and within 24 hours posted it to her Twitter feed.

At 73, Gray admits that tweeting comes less naturally to her than some of her younger co-stars, but she’s jumped on the social media bandwagon with gusto after a hesitant start.

“At first I went, ‘Oh no, I can’t do that, what am I gonna talk about?’?” she recalled. “God bless TNT, they sent a social media team to Dallas, Texas, from Atlanta, and they said, ‘We’re gonna teach you guys, the older ones, how to do this.’”

Both she and Patrick Duffy began tweeting — she said series star Larry Hagman never did before his 2012 death — with some assistance from their younger co-stars.

Josh Henderson, 32, plays John Ross, son of Gray’s Sue Ellen Ewing, on “Dallas” (which returned for its third season Monday night), and he describes himself as the on-set social media tutor.

“I’m their coach, whether it’s retweeting, private messages or hashtags, I coach them in these things, especially in season one,” he said. “Linda and I went on the road promoting the show, and I made sure she knew what to do, and now she’s pretty good at it.”

But it isn’t just good practice for stars to engage viewers through Twitter. Since Nielsen began collecting Twitter ratings last fall, network execs and marketers are scrambling to figure out what these numbers actually mean.

With more and more homes having DVRs, networks are looking for event programming that encourages live viewing — rather than delayed, DVR viewing — more than ever. Having stars live tweet is a big attraction.

In October, Nielsen, the company that measures TV viewership, began measuring Twitter chatter about TV shows. Each week, the company produces a report that shows the Top 10 TV shows ranked by Twitter chatter. Nielsen measures not only the number of people tweeting about a particular show but also the larger “unique” audience of people who view those tweets and could be influenced by them.

For the week Feb. 9-15, AMC’s “The Walking Dead” ranked first with more than 1.2 million tweets seen by an audience of almost 7.5 million Twitter users. That buried the runner-up, CBS’s “The Beatles: The Night That Changed America, A Grammy Salute” (roughly 260,000 tweets, 5.2 million users). In third was always-strong “Pretty Little Liars” (443,000 tweets, 4.4 million users).

Can Twitter make a difference from an advertising standpoint?

The company recently released analysis from Symphony Advanced Media and Millward Brown Digital that might make advertisers happy. Among other findings, it showed those watching TV in the traditional fashion are 17 percent likely to tune away during commercial breaks, as compared with 8 percent of viewers tweeting during the program.

In addition, brand recall from commercials was 40 percent without social media, 53 percent with. The studies also indicated that viewers were more likely to purchase the advertised products (a 16 percent lift versus 30 percent) if engaged in tweeting.

It was also noted that if a television commercial used a hashtag for the product, a higher level of viewer engagement was achieved.

“That’s why we worked with Nielsen and set out to develop a standard metric for the industry, to measure the conversation on Twitter and not just look at activity,” said Rachel Horwitz, Twitter spokeswoman. “We also look at several different data points, which includes impressions, which is how many people saw tweets or those messages in that live window when the show (originally) aired.

“That’s what this benchmark does: it gives networks and advertisers a way to monetize (such data).”

With plenty of prime-time shows tweeting these days, the cast of ABC’s “Scandal” ranks among the most prominent.

“Scandal” executive producer Shonda Rhimes said she and series star Kerry Washington were discussing social media opportunities for the series at the same time.

“I said, if you tell all the actors to get on Twitter, they will,” Rhimes recalled. “They’re such an enthusiastic bunch of people and are so eager to get people to watch the show, it was very easy.”

Rhimes, who also executive-produces “Grey’s Anatomy,” was on Twitter well before the 2012 debut of “Scandal” after someone created a Twitter handle and was impersonating her.

“I wanted my name,” she said. “From there it felt like a great way to talk directly to the press without having to put out a statement. If somebody writes something that’s wrong, I could immediately go, ‘Nope, that’s what’s going to happen with those characters,’ and that was nice.”

While that direct contact is a boon for individuals, one can imagine it causing heart palpitations among publicists trying to control a network’s messaging.

“I think in the early days when nobody knew what it was really about there was a little of that,” Rhimes said. “A little, ‘Can you let us know when you’re going to tweet?’ and I was like, no, because the Twitter is mine. I spent a lot of time tweeting about shows I liked as well, but I’m not tweeting for the network. The network doesn’t pay me to tweet. … I think people freaked out about it at first, but it quickly became fine. Now they fully encourage it.”

Indeed, hardly a day passes when ABC Family doesn’t send out a press release about the stars of its shows making an appearance on Twitter. CBS hosts occasional “tweet weeks” when series stars go online to tweet at announced times. And cable’s HLN announced this month plans to reposition itself as a network with news coverage driven by online chatter and what’s trending on sites such as Twitter and Facebook.

Andrew Rannells (“Girls,” “The New Normal”) recently told an Entertainment Weekly radio host that when “Normal” was still in production, there was a big push from NBC for the cast to live tweet each week.

But, he joked, he wasn’t prepared for the young female fan who joined the conversation, suggesting Rannells, 35, should be on “Glee,” playing the father of Darren Criss’ character, Blaine.

Criss is 27. That hurt.

Clearly, TV networks see benefits from reaching out to viewers via social media. Indeed, “Scandal,” returning with a new episode at 10 p.m. EST Thursday, only became a hit after the show’s stars began tweeting during episodes.

“I think it has to have helped. A lot of fans have been amazing, getting others to watch and there’s all this energy on Twitter,” Rhimes said. Fans, including YouTuber Tangela Ekhoff (www.youtube.com/user/tangelaekhoff), have become part of the show’s marketing efforts. “It makes people go, what is this about? So it makes them watch, but it sort of makes you feel like you have to watch it live because you want to be part of the Twitter experience.”

In an example of teaching an old dog new tricks, NBC’s venerable “Saturday Night Live” — approaching its 40th season — has reinvented itself on social media. Using @nbcsnl and the hashtag #asksnl, it provides fans the chance to ask cast members questions and see some of the answers via YouTube video.

Some of the actors put on a little stand-up performance (Taran Killam); others are more straightforward (Vanessa Bayer). In a similar vein, “SNL” uses social media to direct viewers to backstage tour videos, such as one conducted by Bobby Moynihan.

Of course, tweets alone do not make for a cultural juggernaut. As CBS chief research officer David Poltrack pointed out in July, “If you followed Twitter … you would think that ‘Pretty Little Liars’ is the most-watched show on television. And it may be with the very narrow group of young women who are obsessed with that show and are probably also obsessed with Twitter.”

But he didn’t deny the impact of social media on television.

“The emergence of social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, has already had a profound impact on the culture, both within the U.S. and worldwide,” he said. “For the first time, we now have direct access to some of the conversations of the population.”

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