Social Media Takes Television Back in Time


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Illustration by Cristiana Couceiro; photograph by Steve Bonini/Getty Images

The actor Joshua Malina is one of those guys you know from TV. You may not recognize his name, but his boyish face would ring a bell.

Mr. Malina has worked in television for more than two decades, with recurring roles on a handful of hit shows, including “The West Wing” and “The Big Bang Theory.” Still, by his own unembarrassed estimation, Mr. Malina is hardly a star. “You know, I don’t have fans,” he said in a recent interview. “I’m a working man’s actor guy. I’m not one of those people who have fans.”

Well, not until recently. In 2012, Mr. Malina became a regular on “Scandal,” the high-drama ABC thriller that stars Kerry Washington as a political fixer. “Scandal,” whose fifth season began Sept. 24, is one of the most watched dramas on TV, but among observers of the industry it is best known as an exemplar of the power of social media to catch and hook an audience.

Every Thursday since the show’s premiere, most of the “Scandal” cast and crew have used Twitter to add live commentary that runs during the broadcast. The cast’s social media presence — which, according to the ratings firm Nielsen, inspires hundreds of thousands of tweets from viewers during every broadcast — has been credited with deepening the program’s relationship with its audience.

Television used to be a supremely solitary experience, for its creators and for its viewers. The writer David Foster Wallace called it “an absolute godsend for a human subspecies that loves to watch people but hates to be watched itself.” For a time, digital technology seemed to be deepening the rift. TV has always been spatially isolating, with each of us cut off from everyone else who was watching. Then DVDs and DVRs and, later, on-demand services like Netflix added a temporal disconnection, too, making it increasingly unlikely that everyone else everywhere else was watching the same schlock at the same time.

But that’s beginning to change. The emergence of social TV hits like “Scandal” suggests how, over the next few years, technology could transform television into something more than a one-way, disconnected, time-shifted experience. It’s not just that today’s shows are better, that we are in a “golden age” — or what some critics have upgraded to a “platinum age” — of TV. Instead, largely because of social media, TV is becoming an interactive, communal experience. And in an unexpected throwback to the earliest days of television, the best stuff, rather than playing out whenever we like, is best experienced live, because that’s when everyone else is watching, too.

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Illustration by Cristiana Couceiro; photographs by Nicole Wilder/ABC (Malina), Eric McCandless/ABC (Washington), Helen Sloan/HBO (Emilia Clarke)

Mr. Malina, 49, is in some ways the unlikely embodiment of a new kind of TV star in a new age of television. “I’m 25-plus years into my career, and it’s only with ‘Scandal’ and Twitter that the concept of my having fans with a last name other than Malina has even entered into my consciousness,” he said. He doesn’t just tweet. He’s on Vine. He’s on Periscope. As social media experts say, Mr. Malina “engages,” and in talking about his newly altered relationship with those who know him from TV, he can sometimes slip into describing his online presence as his “brand,” though he quickly apologizes for “sounding mercenary.”

“I like the back-and-forth,” Mr. Malina added. “I miss doing live theater, where you actually can hear someone chuckle at something you just said, or a gasp because something suspenseful has happened. On TV, you didn’t get that — but now there is a sense of immediacy to the reaction. It’s like, ‘Oh, there are people watching the show and responding to it.’”

The community of viewers will probably become more important as technology continues to alter TV. Twitter has been the leading platform for such reactions. In a coming feature that has been code-named Project Lightning, the short-messaging network plans to add several improvements for following along with live television. But Twitter’s current influence may be just a peek at the communal future of TV. Several emerging digital experiences fit snugly into what might be considered the TV of tomorrow.

Last year, Snapchat, the picture-messaging app favored by teenagers and college students, began creating Live Stories, a series of daily video vignettes stitched from multiples users’ perspectives and covering a range of topics, including life in the West Bank and the celebrations of the marriage equality movement. What’s unusual about Live Stories is that they aren’t personalized across Snapchat’s audience. Every day, Snapchat presents the same handful of new stories to most of the app’s user base of more than a hundred million viewers. After a day, you get a slate of new videos, and the old ones disappear. For viewers, the experience of watching Snapchat’s stories is thus communal — everyone is watching pretty much the same thing at the same time.

Periscope, an app purchased by Twitter last year that lets users film and broadcast videos of their surroundings, also puts a premium on live, group experiences. You can watch a Periscope video of a concert or a party long after it was shot, but that’s a diminished experience. The app superimposes audience comments on the video, so if you watch live, you’re seeing not just the performance on-screen, but also how the audience is experiencing the performance.

This happens in a more complex way on Vine, a popular short-video service also owned by Twitter that is also mining a rich new vein in television’s possible future. Jason Mante, Vine’s head of user experience, said the biggest stars on Vine were engaged in a constant creative conversation with the audience and their fellow videographers.

Vine’s videos are just six seconds long, and each one plays in a never-ending loop. The format sounds constricted, but over the last couple of years Vine videographers have made wild leaps of creative possibilities — and each time someone crosses a new frontier, the visual breakthrough bounces across the service. “There’s an aesthetic language on Vine, an authenticity that focuses on creating stuff that is only for Vine,” Mr. Mante said. “The people that are most successful are the ones that can be part of the community. They can speak in that language and that aesthetic.”

At the moment, that aesthetic is awash in visual gags, like people performing superhuman feats or editing clips to make it look as if they are talking to themselves. But, in a way common on these networks, the avant-garde on Vine is always changing.

In different ways, these apps present an experience even more multilayered than that of watching performers in a theater. When you’re watching TV with Twitter, or you log on to Vine, Periscope, Snapchat or some other service, you don’t just hear others in the audience gasp. Now people react to one another’s gasps — and because the writers and producers of these shows are also looking at the audience reaction, the gasps can alter the show itself. For instance, the creators of the ABC Family teen thriller “Pretty Little Liars” regularly tweet and post on Instagram from the writers’ room — apparently in reaction to fans’ theories about the show — often stoking interest during the off-season. As a result, the collective experience may be more entertaining than the solitary one.

Indeed, that’s happening now: For some “Scandal” devotees, Twitter has become a vital part of the show; watching “Scandal” without following tweets about “Scandal” is a lesser experience, like watching it in black-and-white, or on mute.

The increasing importance of live, communal experiences seems certain to affect the business of television. The largest TV companies have lately been rocked by the fear that the dominant mode of enjoying television, through a cable subscription on a big screen in a living room, may be on the wane. Cable subscriptions are down, while on-demand services like Netflix are experiencing extraordinary growth. Even cable stalwarts like HBO have set themselves free of the cable guy; you can now subscribe to the network over the Internet, without first paying for basic cable.

A growing preference for cord cutting would suggest the inevitable dominance of time-shifting. If we all start to get our TV in different ways, if we’re no longer chained to a set in the living room, it might follow that in the future we’ll all watch different things at different times. That expectation explains why Netflix releases original programs like “House of Cards” in full-season bursts. The future, if Netflix has its way, looks to belong to binge watchers.

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But it’s possible that bingeing isn’t for everyone — that the shared, week-upon-week thrill of experiencing a show over time, with a community, is preferable to housebound overindulgence. After all, even though we can all watch in different ways, most of us still prefer to watch big TV hits live.

Nielsen’s data shows that over the course of last season’s “Game of Thrones,” on HBO, most people watched each episode the day it came out. Three-quarters of the people who watched the season finale watched it on the Sunday it was broadcast.

“We’re still wired for that week-to-week cultural conversation,” said Fred Graver, a longtime television comedy writer and producer who is Twitter’s creative lead for TV. “It’s rewarding for the community, and it’s even rewarding for the creators.”

And for many there’s a reason to watch when it’s on. If you miss it, people will talk about it on Twitter and Facebook, and even if you manage to escape the spoilers, you’ll still find yourself left out of the cultural discussion. Miss something live and you’re racked with that pressing sensation of our wired times: FOMO, “fear of missing out.”

“I remember it happened with me for ‘Game of Thrones,’” Mr. Graver said. “This is a show with dragons. I don’t like dragons. Why would I watch this? But then the famous Red Wedding episode hit, and everyone was talking about it on Twitter. And you go, ‘Oh, my God, everybody’s talking about it. I have to go see what this thing is about.’ And I became a fan.”

Mr. Graver notes that not all shows make for great communal viewing. He says that slower, more contemplative dramas — think “Mad Men” rather than the more high-stakes “Scandal” — often fail to garner much notice on Twitter, possibly because it’s more difficult to take your eyes off the screen to tweet. Comedies also don’t inspire much communal viewing. On the other hand, high-emotion dramas like “Scandal” can earn a substantial audience online.

According to Twitter, the “Scandal” season premiere inspired about 423,000 tweets. And the second-season premiere of Fox’s smash hit “Empire,” about the passions surrounding a family-owned record label, generated a record 1.3 million tweets when it aired on Sept. 23. The large Twitter audience coincided with a huge live TV audience. About 16 million people saw the premiere, according to Nielsen, making it Fox’s highest-rated premiere for a scripted drama since 2009.

Indeed, Twitter and Nielsen have found that there is a connection between the volume of tweets and a show’s total audience size. In a study Twitter conducted with Fox, the network found that people who noticed tweets about “Empire” said they were far more likely than people who had seen no tweets to say they were interested in next watching the show in real time. Tweets about “Empire” also lifted interest in time-shifted viewing — a common reaction, according to another study by Nielsen. Perhaps because of FOMO, people who notice a conversation about a show decide to catch up by watching previous episodes online.

For HBO, which makes its money from subscription fees, the week-to-week online chatter feeds interest for new users. For networks that are funded by advertising, the case for live communal viewing is even stronger. Advertisers covet collective engagement; they want people to watch their ads at an appointed time, and they pay a premium for large masses of communal viewers. (That’s why sporting events like the Super Bowl do so well.) Marketers are even more pleased when they can serve ads that span a viewer’s screens — a TV ad that’s coupled with a Twitter ad, for example — and when they can participate in the discussion over the course of a show.

More than that, using neural imaging, Nielsen has found that activity on Twitter might also indicate how engaged, and thus receptive to ads, even nontweeting viewers might be. The numbers show a deep, perhaps unbreakable connection between viewing and reacting — between watching and sharing entertainment together.

“It’s surprising, but it really adds as much to the experience for us who are on the show as it does for those who are watching,” Mr. Malina said. “There’s this groupthink. People are arguing, there are great factions. It’s just a lot of fun.”

Which shouldn’t come as a surprise. Though television has long been vilified for the way it supposedly transforms us into passive, shiftless voyeurs, it has just as easily been among the most powerful media forces pushing cultural unity. At big events, from the Kennedy assassination to 9/11 to every Super Bowl and awards show, and cliffhangers like “Who shot J.R.?,” TV is the cultural baseline — the thing in the background that commands attention, that sets the conversation. Now, on our phones and our computers, the conversation continues.

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