Discovery to Add 140 Characters to Many Series

Company hopes to increase ratings—and social media buzz— with 100 hours of live on-air Twitter feeds

Social media has exploded in recent
years as the number of small-screen
smartphones and tablets has proliferated.
But as campaigns to increase TV viewership
get more sophisticated, more networks are looking
for ways to close up the social media loop
by, for instance, putting things like series-related
tweets into their on-air programming.

The goal is to use Twitter to create a
virtual circle where tweets generated
on small screens can be put on bigscreen
TVs, which will in turn generate
more tweets and social media buzz
that might boost viewing.

Discovery Communications is quadrupling
on-air social media integrations
from 25 hours in 2012 to 100
hours this year across all its channels.
Upcoming series and specials that will
feature on-air graphic feeds of select
tweets include Skywire Live, Four Weddings
and the United States of Bacon.

“This is one of the largest collaborative efforts
I’ve seen at this company,” says Don Johnson,
senior VP of U.S. media operations for Discovery

While the project is still in its early stages, Guhan
Selvaretnam, senior VP of digital media for Discovery
Communications, explains that putting
tweets on-air can boost social media activity
around a show by as much as nine times, which
in turn can boost ratings.

“We’re not just chasing trends here,” says
Selvaretnam. “Repeats [with on-air tweets] are
three times more likely to be DVR’d, and we see
a 30% increase in viewing on those repeats.”

Harvesting Tweets
Takes Talent and Time

The process for achieving those results can,
however, be laborious. Dozens of people might
be involved at various times in the project,
and six or seven people might be required on
the night of the show.

They also take time. Scott Lewers, senior VP
of programming for the Discovery Channel, says
that they are now starting to ask producers to
think about social media “right from the start” of
program development, and that the social media
integration has to be adapted to each show.

“You can’t take a cookie-cutter approach,”
Lewers says. “Each show has its own DNA.”

Selvaretnam also notes Discovery has to carefully
plan its efforts so that the tweets don’t distract
from the program’s plot or visuals.

“It is a craft,” says Fred Graver, head of TV at
Twitter, who adds that successful TV producers
will look for the right spot to insert tweets to
enhance the emotional impact of the show. “It
is really a new direction in storytelling.”

For a major special or series, Discovery
might start planning social media efforts six
months in advance, bringing together teams
from social media, digital, public relations,
app development, programing and outside
tech firms.

The teams will draw up a production plan
that includes timelines for social media efforts,
the people involved and the role they will each
play. That plan will also identify places in the
show where calls to action, polls, graphics,
crawls or tweets might be placed—which are
dubbed Twitter windows of opportunity, or
TWOs—and the teams will often rehearse prior
to airtime. Anywhere from 30 to 200 tweets
might make their way on-air during the show.

Even so, the painstaking process of creating
graphics and getting the social media on the
air has been considerably streamlined.
The first use of on-air tweets for the Ricky
Gervais series An Idiot Abroad, which
aired on Discovery’s Science network, required
staff to cut and paste tweets into
the graphics system, Johnson recalls.

Since then, Johnson’s engineers have
deployed Miranda Technologies’ XG
processors to generate graphics for the
on-air social media feeds. They also work
closely with Twitter to improve the social
media efforts, and they have hired Mass
Relevance to help curate the tweets.

The Mass Relevance platform allows
Discovery to apply customized filters
for a huge amount of social media. “In two
seconds, they can filter out all the stuff that
wouldn’t be relevant or interesting,” explains
Sam Decker, CEO of Mass Relevance.

But much work remains to be done. Johnson
says he would like the graphics vendors to develop
a system that could be more completely
integrated into their broadcast infrastructure.

It is also the early days of social media revenue.
Currently, Discovery recoups its investments
via a bump in traditional TV ratings. In
the future, it might allow advertisers to sponsor
some tweets.

But, as in all of Discovery’s on-air social media
efforts, they plan to be cautious. “We don’t
want to do anything that will distract from the
[TV] program,” Selvaretnam says.

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