It’s sometimes hard to believe how much the television business has transformed over the past two decades.
Around the turn of the millennium, a new breed of game-changing formats burst onto the scene, including the likes of Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, Big Brother and Pop Idol. The key to their phenomenal success lay not only in the fact they were creative and entertaining but, most importantly, they could be easily reproduced and were highly exportable. This led to an explosion in the international trade of TV formats that continues today, and has seen the replication of countless shows around the globe into a myriad of languages.
However, despite these major advances, the act of viewing was still a passive experience for audiences. Lip service was paid to interactivity in the form of phone-ins and SMS voting, which hinted at the potential for deeper engagement, but the exercise largely remained a one-way delivery of content created by executives in faraway TV Land.
In 2014 things are very different. A significant amount of today’s formats are shaped as much by the viewers as the programme makers. The connected era we now live in, characterised by the rise and rise of digital platforms and social media, has democratised the creative process and content providers now assume the role of content mediators. Social listening and digital viewer interaction has created a giant feedback loop that media companies are using to develop shows and formats which reflect real-world issues and trends.
Social networks are woven into the fabric of our lives, acting as a platform to share interests, worries and opinions with the world in real-time. An audience insight tool of this scale has never existed before, and gives content producers the ability to create shows that people can truly relate.
As the most connected generations of all, millennials, are the driving force of this revolution. So it is an area that Viacom International, with our youth channel brands of MTV, Nickelodeon and Comedy Central, knows only too well.
To be successful, formats must reflect this new reality and this evolution in programme making. Social trends that engage mass conversation and intrigue online now shape the concept creation process, while social media – no longer a nice add-on – is baked into content from the start. Social media footprints for our shows are laid out before they even go on air and all characters have a social presence, so audiences can interact with them in real time at the time of broadcast. Second and third screen narratives are designed specifically to affect the decisions in each episode.
MTV’s latest offering, Are You The One? – launching for international sale at MIP this week – is a timely example: a modern dating social experiment informed by age-old youth concerns over the struggle to find love, and further amplified in a digital era where decision-making is driven by online dating, algorithms, social profiles and Tinder-style apps. Millennials seem to have more choice than ever before, and so the task is becoming ever more complex.
With social media therefore firmly embedded within its core, the show has been necessarily integrated across MTV’s digital channels, with each episode designed with social media moments intended to stir viewer debate and opinion, and encourage interaction across second and third screens.
But the social dimension doesn’t end there. Formats are, by definition, designed to be adapted to different markets and audiences around the world, and their potential to generate interaction is essential when it comes to distributing them to international broadcasters. In the Viacom portfolio, the massive success of Jersey Shore, and subsequent international spin-offs such as Geordie Shore and Gandia Shore, illustrates the power of social media to build brand engagement around a hit format, no matter what country or culture.
It therefore goes without saying that the social media age presents programme makers with unprecedented opportunities for concept inspiration, as well as simply being a valuable resource for viewer engagement. And who knows – in the not too far distant future perhaps second and third screens will become our first screen.
Caroline Beaton is SVP international programme sales at Viacom International Media Networks