The idiot box used to have our undivided attention. But today, most of us have a laptop or a smartphone and there’s a growing propensity for audiences to watch TV while using these devices and interacting via Twitter and Facebook.
Inevitably this has led us to discuss the shows we’re watching — sharing our thoughts, feelings and funny comments with people around the world. As anyone who’s checked Twitter’s trending topics on a Saturday night will already know, this "two screen habit" has transformed the humble television programme into a nationwide event where social networks have become forums for tens of thousands of people to talk about what they’re watching in real time.
James Kirkham, managing director of creative agency Holler, told RadioTimes.com: “Increasingly, shows like The X Factor and The Apprentice, which have traditionally been the most talked about, are becoming a visual prod to stimulate a chattering social community… There has been a huge volume of noise during their broadcast with entire communities keen to enjoy each other's virtual company on Twitter, safe in the knowledge they're enjoying the show 'together' watching the same humiliations or dramatic moments as one.”
And the stats seem to back up this anecdotal evidence.
TV Genius, a content discovery company who works with the likes of ITV and Sky, tracks the number of tweets that are sent about popular programmes. Their findings show that, for example, during its season finale on Saturday, Doctor Who attracted more than 70 tweets a minute. Meanwhile The X Factor’s dramatic two-part visit to the judges' houses pulled in, on average, a staggering 257 tweets per minute; which equates to roughly four tweets for every second the show was on the air.
It’s no surprise then to see programme-makers working to actively engage with these audiences during broadcast. You can already see evidence of this taking place as hashtags and Twitter addresses flash up on screen at the start of shows ranging from Question Time to The Great British Bake Off.
There is a revolution going on behind the scenes too. Production companies like Talkback Thames – the people responsible for hit shows like The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent – are employing dedicated social media producers who are tasked with curating conversations and engaging with fans via Facebook and Twitter while shows are being broadcast.
“Much of this to date has been driven by audience behaviour," explains Nick Farnhill, co-founder of digital experts Poke, "but more and more, producers and networks are inviting audience participation to both live and recorded events”.
ITV2’s "structured reality" behemoth The Only Way Is Essex is a good example of a show that’s taking this engagement to the next level. Attracting around 20,000 tweets a week and with a staggering 591,000 likes on Facebook to date, the show can claim to have one of the most engaged social communities on the schedules, and its producers are actively exploiting this.
Anyone who has tuned in to watch the antics of its perma-tanned protagonists will, no doubt, have firsthand experience of this. Bookending the broadcast action are social media sections where tweets are flashed up on screen or read out via voiceover, while discussion topics are flagged up for viewers to debate.
It’s clear that this dialogue isn’t just springing up organically around the show, but being actively encouraged by producers who are using the screen action to corral the conversations and engage audience members via social networks.
Evidently, the rising number of viewers who are using social platforms while watching TV isn’t just shaping the way we watch TV, it’s also starting to shape the very programmes we tune in to watch.
“Many writers, producers and directors now go so far as to include a 'Twitter bomb' in the narrative of the opening minutes of one of their programmes,” says James Kirkham from Holler.
“The idea is that they broadcast content intentionally polemic or incendiary which will cause an explosive effect among the twittering classes. Such an impact will cause a ripple effect, and the intention from the show's creators will be that a whole host of potential audience members will see others talking about the show or referring to it, and subsequently jump on board themselves.”
It wasn't so long ago that the size of the crowd around the water cooler was the barometer by which the success of a show could be measured. Nowadays, however, word of mouth has been replaced by "word of mouse". As the conversation continues to move online, it seems social networks have become the water coolers of the 21st century.