When Twitter Fans Steer TV

/// When Twitter Fans Steer TV

September 17, 2012  |  Blog

WSJ.com – There’s a new critic in television writing rooms pressuring some producers to tweak scripts: the Twitterati.

Comments posted on Twitter and other social-media websites about television shows have exploded in the past year, to 75.5 million in July from 8.8 million a year earlier, far faster than overall growth in such comments, according to research firm Bluefin Labs. And the comments are beginning to have an impact on the writing of shows.

Writers of USA Network’s drama “Covert Affairs” framed the final episode of the show’s second season to respond to constant questions on Twitter about whether a lead character, Auggie Anderson, would regain his lost eyesight.

“You had a group of fans who really felt bad for him and in I think a very romantic way, wanted him to get his sight back,” says Christopher Gorham, the actor who plays Auggie, in an interview. “We were getting a lot of questions and a lot of feedback on social media.”

So, in scenes added to the final episode of the season, a doctor breaks the news to Auggie that he isn’t a candidate for an experimental treatment.

“That was a very specific thing that was put in to put an end to those questions about this character,” Mr. Gorham says.

Shows responding to Twitter so overtly remain in the minority. Producers say they pay close attention to comments to gauge audience response in real time, but when it comes to script and plot decisions, creative teams are cautious about giving fans outright control.

“We work very hard not to be too swayed…and not turn it into a choose your own adventure where whoever yells the loudest wins,” says Julie Plec, executive producer of “Vampire Diaries,” a Warner Bros.-produced series for the CW network, a joint venture between Time Warner Inc. TWX +0.86% and CBS Corp. CBS +0.54%

Still, there have been times when “Vampire Diaries” writers couldn’t ignore Twitter. Take, for instance, a scene in the season two finale in May 2011, when a vampire named Katherine enters a house without an invitation. According to vampire lore, a vampire can’t enter a human’s home without an invitation. The breach of etiquette on “Vampire Diaries” brought a flood of questions on Twitter.

The writers had planned to explain how Katherine had entered the house in the next episode, the first of the third season, but couldn’t find a good place to fit it into the script. “When we didn’t answer it, we contemplated, ‘maybe we’ll just let it go,'” Ms. Plec says.

Fans kept harping on the unanswered question. “For half the season we kept getting that question from fans everywhere,” Ms. Plec says. In the 2011-2012 season, “Vampire Diaries” averaged 57,000 social comments per episode, one of the highest of any scripted series on TV, Bluefin says.

Ultimately, “Vampire Diaries” worked an idea into the script that solved the Katherine question, explaining that the house’s previous owners were vampires.

Some producers are more skeptical than others about how valuable Twitter comments are. They note a relatively small group of people are responsible for most of the comments. The 75 million social comments Bluefin counted in July about television were made by eight million people. The number of U.S. households with television sets, in contrast, is about 115 million, according to Nielsen.

“Sometimes it’s a lot of the same people doing some sort of carpet bombing,” says Brad Falchuk, a creator and executive producer of “Glee,” the Fox broadcast network drama that averaged more social comments than any program on TV last season.

“There’s a danger in taking too much from it,” he says. Fox is a unit of News Corp., NWSA +1.27% owner of The Wall Street Journal.

Moreover, there isn’t necessarily a correlation between volume of social media comments and audience size, at least for scripted series. The programs drawing most Tweets tend to be contest programs, like “American Idol.” Yet the record for comments is now held by “Pretty Little Liars” on ABC Family channel, with one-eighth of the audience of “American Idol.”

“Pretty Little Liars” drew 1.6 million comments after its Aug. 28 episode, according to Bluefin—or one comment for every one and a half viewers.

Mr. Falchuk says he would prefer viewers keep focused on his show while it airs, rather than posting comments simultaneously. “I would love to do an episode that was so amazing you got fewer Tweets,” he says.

Matt Corman, a creator and executive producer for “Covert Affairs,” believes it is important to keep the support of viewers who are most vocal on Twitter. “Fans who watch the show can become grass-roots organizers for the show,” he says. “In politics they say don’t ignore your base.”

But the experience with Auggie’s blindness shows that certain fans will always be hard to please. Some still post Tweets urging the show’s creative team to give Auggie his eyesight back. Others never saw the episode that addressed his disability and still ask if it is temporary. Mr. Gorham, the actor, says he sometimes posts Tweets referring viewers to the episode, or lets the Twitter community work it out on its own: “Some of my followers do it for me, at this point, as they talk amongst themselves,” he says.

Link: When Twitter Fans Steer TV

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