Television networks have a mixed relationship with social media.
On the one hand, social media has buoyed television. In the olden days, event television was something we shared with our family or our mates. They would physically come to our houses and we would sit around the idiot box and share our opinions with each other. From time to time, we would grab the corded phone and watch Hey Hey together in real time, and while the ads were on we’d talk about whether Red Symons could possibly really be that angry all the time. Early social media / event television.
These days, social media is the driving force behind event television. Social media can be partly to blame for the perpetuation of shows like The Shire and Being Lara Bingle and, sadface, Masterchef. While the latter seemed close to an axing at the start of its 2012 run, and was then significantly squished so as not to come up against the Olympics, it ended on a ratings high of around 2.2 million during the finale.
On Saturday morning, miserable people Australia-wide climbed reluctantly from bed, pushed from their warm slumber by the knowledge that their friends on the internet would be waiting for them. Together, they (we!) watched the London 2012 opening ceremony. For the first time, Twitter was part of that ceremony. The ratings in Australia were not spectacular (though combined with the afternoon repeat, and considering the 5:30am live telecast, they were beyond acceptable), but worldwide ratings were smashed to bits. Social media perpetuated the trend to switch on and be part of the conversation. And as NBC soon found out, it’s fairly important to be on the right side of that conversation.
Which might be why, on the other hand, the networks rarely listen to social media audiences. This is never more evident than when they make changes to programming that contradict what viewers are saying in their very public – and easily monitored – social media networks. As in, “don’t put The Shire on the telly, we won’t watch it!” and “We like The Circle, it’s got strong, smart women on it!”
How is it that networks can be so demonstrably supported by the parts of their audience that use social media to have open conversations about what’s on the box, yet so dismissive of that same audience when it comes to decision making? That instead of monitoring the social landscape before heading to the boardroom (“People say the Sunrise hosts make them want to vomit in their cereal, let’s see what we can do about it?”) they seem to abjectly ignore it in favour of traditional research methods (“Three-quarters of our focus group of four people said they like the Breakfast hosts”).
Today, Channel 10 announced the canning of its morning show, The Circle. It’s not a show for everyone, that’s true. But it is a panel of smart women saying smart things about important subjects. Remember Beauty and the Beast? It’s a bit like that, but without misogyny. It’s topical and relevant and not idiotic. And it’s locally produced and, in this TV watcher’s opinion, much better than the offerings on the other stations.
In the wake of the announcement, Twitter users went ballistic. “Why is The Circle being axed, but Breakfast is not?” they cried, bewildered as to where they, as viewers, went wrong and why the TV had gone topsy turvy. “And why is The Shire still on?”
There is no question that network television is about driving advertising dollars. And I’m not suggesting that all programming decisions should be based on the opinions of a few thousand social media users. But the time has definitely come to stop treating viewers like passive idiots and to consider wider sentiment when making these kinds of choices. The alternatives to watching television are many, and the audience doesn’t need much of an excuse to go elsewhere.