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Policy Matters: The Social Media Push

Is there still an audience that watches TV in real time? If so, what does it mean? Cohen investigates.

Contrary to anecdotal evidence, television and its linear schedule are not only not dead, but they’re actually not dead because of…the internet. This was the most refreshing thing I heard at the newly named Banff Media Festival this summer, when Duncan Stewart, director of research at Deloitte Canada’s media futures division, gave his snapshot review of current research conducted by his group.

It isn’t what we typically hear from most media analysts, given over-the-top services like Netflix coming to town or the diverse offerings of streamed video. In fact, most predict—and I’ve done it too, I admit—that conventional broadcasting is doomed in the face of the growing power of broadband delivery, threats of data caps notwithstanding.

If anyone has a teenager in the house, just watch their viewing habits for a night or two. Unless it’s Glee or Saturday Night Live, chances are they’re watching streamed content on their computers almost exclusively. And as that highly coveted 18-to-24-year-old demographic goes, so too go predictions about television behaviour.

Hold on, says Stewart. In spite of both technological and demographic forces moving viewers away from the schedule, there are just as many social media opportunities being deployed by viewers of all ages—especially those older than 24—that push them in larger numbers to watching TV in real time. After all, even that denotative 15-year-old watching Glee will text or tweet her friends while doing so. Indeed, whether by Twitter, Skype, BBM or Facebook, there is very solid data that these forms of communication have become, for now, the new hearth around which folks chat about the simultaneous experience of watching a particular TV programme. And this has been borne out by the Twitter traffic for programmes as diverse as Jersey Shore and the Super Bowl.

No doubt the live talent shows from Idolland have been critical to the foundation of this practice. “Text us your favorite contestant now!” became the recurrent invocation during the top ten episodes of these talent shows, but it wasn’t much of a stretch to move beyond this to using the platform to communicate with friends, family and even strangers about these and many other programmes. Indeed, Stewart himself (in his Globe and Mail column on April 28th, 2011) cited a conversation with CBC president Hubert T. Lacroix, who revealed that most viewers of Republic of Doyle don’t watch it on their PVRs but watch it in real time and chat about it online simultaneously. For Stewart, it portends that social media is a force that ‘re-linearizes’ TV, and as such is one of the most important TV trends of the last decade.

The bigger point here is that everyone who has the tools of social media is in fact a publisher of one sort or another, and thus can and does function as a ‘critic’ pushing or pulling (to riff on Stewart’s terminology) other viewers or consumers to and from programmes. It’s a hyperreal conversation in real time. With 1.6 billion people online around the world, that’s a lot of publishing. It helps to explain what has until recently puzzled analysts: that as social media grows, traditional media in fact has remained stable and is growing too. The growth isn’t crazy, but it’s not falling either—at least not now. In Canada, for instance, recent data from the CRTC reveals that on balance our broadcasters all posted net profits. (So much for all their appalling hand-wringing demands for regulatory concessions since 2008.)

And as for the future demographic habits of those teens and young adults? Stewart claims the influence of an interesting social fact. As soon as this “demo” get in relationships after university/college or start families they end up…back on the couch. It may not mean they’ll be glued to a linear schedule in the future, but it does suggest that the collective experience of television-viewing isn’t going away anytime soon.

To read more: Why there is no dominant trend toward digital media

Barri Cohen is an award-winning independent producer, documentary filmmaker and writer. She is in development with the Documentary Channel on her next film with White Pine Pictures in Toronto.

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