In times of Twitter, ratings surge for reality show

It’s difficult to say if “Big Brother” was ahead of the social media curve or just caught some lucky breaks. But the interactive tidal wave of the past decade has certainly served the reality series well.

“It didn’t begin as a social networking show, but as time went on, it clearly lent itself to that,” says Leslie Moonves, president and CEO of CBS Corp. “The idea that viewers would watch those people eating their Cheerios on Showtime’s ‘After Dark,’ then chat about what it all means online, is phenomenal.”

While many shows are reaping the benefits of social networking, few have marshaled those forces as well as “Big Brother.” Now in its 13th edition, the show is posting ratings gains for the second straight year. In its first six weeks, “Big Brother” was up 13% in adults 18-49 — recently rating as the No. 1 broadcast series in this category — while gaining about 5% in total viewers. It may surprise some that viewers could become addicted to watching everyday activities. Yet 24/7 feed subscribers are up 10% from last summer, and of those, 25% also pay for mobile access so they can watch even when they are away from a computer.

And from all indications, the series owes much of its success to the rise of social media. Jennifer Bresnan, exec VP of alternative programming for CBS Entertainment, says she gets constant emails from live-feed subscribers about what they see going on in the house, and possible rule infractions.

“Big Brother” encourages interactivity through various outlets, including decisions on what foods the housemates eat, sabotage instructions to a mole and even what ousted housemate should be allowed to compete to get back into the house.

“We’re a living organism,” says executive producer Allison Grodner. “We’re the only show done with thousands of armchair producers putting together their opinions and feeling they’re contributing.”

Adds Bresnan, “Votes that have an impact on the house, but not the game, don’t seem to increase the activity. But when it impacts the game, everything is on fire.”

Bresnan and her team work with producers Grodner and Rich Meehan to coordinate games and other house activities.

When “Big Brother” bowed in 2000, the term “blog” had been coined only three years earlier, Facebook wouldn’t arrive until 2004 and Twitter didn’t utter a peep until 2006.

Live streaming was still in its infancy, although it was the first element to be utilized by the reality series.

“You look back, and it’s amazing that the live feed began in 2000, so it was more than just a show on CBS, it was a show you could access on the Internet,” says Grodner. Still, at the time, not many people could easily do that on their computers. “That seems strange now when you can watch the show on your phone.”

“Big Brother” originated in the Netherlands, where online technology was ahead of what was available in the U.S.

“?’Big Brother’ always had online baked into its DNA,” says Bresnan. “But as the show has grown and interactive components came available, the evolution came quickly.”

Now scripted and reality shows are filled with hash tags and Twitter accounts, but none has done a better job of weaving social networking into the fabric of their shows as “Big Brother.”

“Big Brother defies gravity,” says Brad Adgate, senior VP of research at Horizon Media. “When a show has been on as long as this, you get some audience erosion and some viewer fatigue, even if you’re ‘American Idol.’?”

Adgate attributes the show’s surge to the characters’ connection with viewers, on whatever medium they choose to watch.

Yet the voyeuristic “Big Brother” has always been a social show about relationships between housemates and how that impacts the game. By bringing auds into those relationships, mainly via social networks, the show got viewers even more invested.

“There’s something about experiencing TV with your friends at the same time and participating in the drama that makes it compelling,” says CBS Entertainment prexy Nina Tassler. “Tweeting, texting, all of that is a validation of what you and your friends are thinking at the time. You want to have input and be part of the whole experience.”

The ability to social network also compels more viewers to watch the show as it airs.

“We’re happy with the DVR numbers, but you can’t tweet what you’re watching on DVR,” Tassler says. “So that drives viewers to watch that broadcast as it happens so they can participate.”

Of course, the involvement doesn’t stop there.

Adgate says a live telecast such as “Big Brother” or even “American Idol” can use the connected viewers as a focus group to gauge what is working and make course corrections that help goose viewer interest.

Moonves boils it all down to the basics. “(TV success has) always been about water-cooler shows,” he says. “But now the water coolers are in everybody’s homes.”

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