Devotee discussions

Fans' feedback provides programmers with vital info

There’s hardly a program on TV today that doesn’t have an online forum or blog for viewers to virtually chat about characters and plotlines. While Internet communities are dedicating hours to analyze every second of the previous night’s broadcast, the industry is spending as much time lurking on these sites to gain instant feedback about programming.

“A lot of our show producers, writers, and practically all of our programming executives are regularly checking online sites where people are talking about our product. It’s a pretty natural thing to do,” says Vivi Zigler, NBC’s executive VP of NBC digital entertainment and new media. And MTV Network Intl.’s youth trend expert Andrew Davidson agrees, saying it gives broadcasters unregulated fly-on-the-wall access to conversations about their product that has never before been possible.

Active online focus groups are popping up on both network-moderated and independent sites, and Cath Warren, media analyst and president of FanTrust Entertainment Strategies, says there are examples of programmers and producers taking advantage of this audience interaction.

“Veronica Mars” creator Rob Thomas, for example, has publicly posted on fan-created Web forums about his show to open the viewers up to what happens on the production side of a TV show.

“It used to be a two-party relationship between the content creator and the broadcaster, but now it’s a threesome. Bringing in the fans is something that can really add creative value,” Warren says.

While the monitoring continues, fan suggestions aren’t impacting production. Greg Goldman, exec VP of development and programming at RDF, says he lurks online to see what fans of “Wife Swap” are saying to fulfill a natural curiosity. The comments and suggestions help reinforce the conviction that the program is on the right path, but he admits: “I don’t think anyone looks on the boards and changes production strategies.”

Tara Ariano, co-owner of fan site Television Without Pity, says viewers who post represent a very small demographic of the overall TV audience. They’re usually avid fans of not-so-mainstream series who believe their comments and suggestions will make a difference to the outcome of a show.

“But they ultimately don’t understand who is in charge of the shows. They see it as though the banner they flew past the CW headquarters got through to the execs, and that’s why the show was changed or stayed on air,” she says.

Although there is some misunderstanding about the industry, networks are reaching out to educate. ABC Australia, for example, is considering creating blogs posted by its commissioning editors.

“It could take the mystery out of programming choices,” says Stephen Rapley, editorial manager for new media and digital.

Opening the lines of communication continues at the U.S.-based Peacock, where the research team posts online surveys to a group of 500,000 specially chosen respondents. Zigler says these are the vocal fans who would normally post their opinions in an online community, but now are in a more controlled environment.

MTV’s Davidson says the global networks under his purview don’t have a dedicated program to cull data from unregulated forum comments.

“It’s still fairly uncharted territory,” he says. In its current state, Davidson believes online research is best used for feedback after a program has aired, and it won’t replace the traditional means of analyzing feedback.

“There’s no substitute for getting a hold of the right people and talking to them in person and understanding what they’re saying,” he says.

MTV is trying to refine this emerging online research tool, but Davidson says a major hurdle is online behavior.

“There’s a huge amount of posturing online. It’s the most crafted and idealized version of who they think they are, but it doesn’t necessarily translate into real behavior.”

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