Discovery to Add140 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 Communications.

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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