On the Overlapping TV and Online Audiences

It has never really made sense to me that, in academia, we have tried to parse “new media” into its own separate area of specialization. One of the reasons is that it seems to me that one of the most important aspects of media scholarship is trying to understand the interaction between older and newer media; and, in particular, how audiences integrate new media technologies into their established media repertoires.  This kind of inquiry requires simultaneous immersion in both the old and new media worlds.

I think this point is well-illustrated by some of the ongoing developments in the television industry.  The traditional TV industry is hard at work on a variety of fronts to try to make sure that the Internet’s net effect on the industry is positive rather than negative. Whether it be figuring how best to distribute programming — and insert advertisements into said programming — online; how to price, sell, and measure audiences across different viewing platforms; or how to capitalize on social media, the TV industry represents a fascinating case study in the complex dynamics surrounding the intersection of old and new media.

One particularly intresting recent development involves TV networks now placing Twitter hashtags at the bottom of the screen during programs.  Comedy Central and FOX are the pioneers in this area.  There are, it seems to me, a number of important points to be taken from these actions. 

First, it is understood and accepted now that audiences typically are engaged with multiple media simultaneously.  It’s interesting to me that, as much as we’ve heard advertisers complain about the effects of the DVR, these advertisers don’t seem to worry or complain much that those people who aren’t fast-forwarding through ads (and the percentage is larger than you’d expect) probably aren’t doing so because they’re immersed in posting to their Twitter or Facebook page.  It doesn’t seem likely that these folks are paying attention to the ads any more (heck, perhaps less) than the viewer with his thumb on the fast-forward button.

Second, and somewhat ironically, it may turn out to be that one new technology — the Internet — will undue some of the economic harm to the TV industry caused by another new technology — the DVR.  As a recent Ad Age article noted, the social dimension of television viewing that is so dramatically enhanced by simultaneous, large-scale social media interaction seems to be prompting a resurgence in the supposedly extinct notion of “appointment viewing.” You can’t be the first with a good smart-ass Twitter comment about a particular show if you’re waiting until three hours later to watch it.

Third, social media actually appear to be not only capable of driving viewers to traditional viewing platforms, but also to new viewing platforms as well.  According to a recent story, “while social-media usage of Facebook and Twitter keeps growing, Nielsen says in January 2011 alone, 49% of all social networking and blog site visitors also visited TV network and broadcast media sites. Twitter had the biggest overlap with broadcast media sites at 76%, while Facebook was at 50%.”

Fourth, as I’ve talked about in earlier posts, social media discussion is in fact emerging as a complementary currency to traditional audience size/demo ratings when it comes to determining how popular a program is, and — most important — how engaged that program’s audience is.  In this regard, it is important to emphasize that social media activity may ultimately prove a useful tool not only to increase audience size, but also to determine the quality of that audience, and thus serve to enhance a program’s value to advertisers on multiple fronts.

In any case, whether one is primarily interested in the Internet, or primarily interested in TV, one can’t adequately understand the future of either platform without simultaneously considering the other.

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