At the first commercial break of the first airing of the first episode of his new TV show, Scorpion actor Robert Patrick was bent over, scowling at his smartphone, grumbling with some exasperation, “I can’t keep up! I have all this stuff and I can’t keep up.”
Indeed, Patrick was surrounded by plenty of stuff, including a batch of tablets and a couple of’ laptops, as well as plenty of his Scorpion colleagues at the Microsoft Lounge in Venice. And there was plenty of stuff going on.
About 40 people, including other show stars Katharine McPhee, Elyes Gabel, Jadyn Wong and Ari Stidham, had commandeered the lounge Monday night to live-tweet and otherwise post on social media about the CBS show together in a convivial communal setting. Such show-night gatherings are increasingly common across Los Angeles for programs trying to build relationships with their audiences, typically using the East Coast feed of their shows so they can reach the most people possible.
The tactic is getting endorsements even from Twitter itself. Just a few days ago, the social-media platform posted on its blog a study that found that live-tweeting during a star’s show is a quick way for that performer, and the show itself, to build a following.
“One of the most powerful and direct ways to drive conversation about a program on Twitter is to have the stars of the show engaged on Twitter, particularly during the airing,” the Twitter blog post said. “In fact, we found that shows live-Tweeting from cast members during the premiere had 64% more Tweets that day compared to programs that did nothing.”
Patrick joined Twitter a year ago at his wife’s urging (she also got him to take the @RobertPatrickT2 Twitter handle – an homage to his iconic Terminator 2 role –when his own name proved unavailable). He remains somewhat old school with new media, sharing relatively little personal information but retweeting others and acknowledging fan posts. But despite his grumps about that steady stream of fan interest during the show, he’s come to accept the value of interacting, both during the show and beyond, as part of the job of being an actor now.
“It’s all kind of weird, but even the Pope has followers now,” Patrick said. “I’m conflicted about it. But look at the show I’m on: it’s the biggest tech-savvy show this season. Someone asked Jim Cameron about whether (Terminator 2‘s evil computer system) Skynet could happen, and he said, ‘Are you kidding? The machines have already won. Look around you.'”
His co-star Katharine McPhee has her own ambivalences about social media, after being plopped into a suite of accounts by her record label after her 2006 run on American Idol. But she subsequently got into Twitter, and now has become a huge fan of Instagram (the hot platform du jour, particularly because users can easily post photos there and then simultaneously share them to Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr).
“When the networks explain to you how important it is,” actors feel they have to get involved, McPhee said. “The 200,000 people who follow me on Twitter aren’t going to make or break a show, but if I can help with the awareness, that’s what we can do.”
Smart shows such as Pretty Little Liars, Teen Wolf and Chicago Fire have worked hard to build audience connections on Twitter and other social-media sites, often by having stars, writers and producers interacting with fans, typically from wherever their busy schedules took them (sometimes months after the season’s production wrapped).
Even new shows, particularly How to Get Away With Murder, have been tweeting and posting heavily all summer, building pre-launch buzz. And that show’s exec producer, Shonda Rhimes, took the live-tweet process to a new level recently, bringing together the casts of Murder and her other two Thursday night shows, Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy, for a joint posting session.
NBC’s The Voice tried another tack beginning last year, with a pre-show “tailgate” featuring postings that include behind-the-scenes images and video by show principals. The tailgates are conducted in a space just outside the door of the Universal City studio where the competition is taped. The approach proved such a success that this year NBC developed a dedicated app for the show that makes Twitter interactions with show stars easier than ever. Nissan jumped in with a three-year sponsorship deal.
But there’s something special about getting the show’s team in a room, especially for scripted programs such as Scorpion that otherwise might not get watched until hours or days after their broadcast. Unlike specials, sports and reality competitions, which pretty much need to be watched in the moment, scripted shows can easily end up on the DVR, VOD or Hulu for consumption days later. Live tweeting pulls the fans back into the moment, something that’s good for advertisers, good for ratings and good for the show.
“The momentum from a live tweet has a crazy social domino effect and the buzz builds,” says Marc Karzen, CEO of RelishMix, the social-media consulting firm advising Scorpion. “The conversation in the room from live tweets take on a bigger dimension with writers posting lines and actors challenging fans.”
That said, it’s still difficult to make an absolute connection between more audience engagement through social media and higher ratings. But Karzen and others says the live tweet sessions clearly are helping shows, especially when actors start posting not just text but also images and even behind-the-scenes videos.
“Actors posts can be so much more playful and engaging than the network’s tone and that’s ok. That’s a big part of how Live Tweets are changing,” Karzen said. “Fans go wild when they feel that an actor is not only watching with them, but dropping stories from behind the scenes. When your fave actor re-tweets or favorites your post, OMG, you’re now a part of the show.”
Each Sunday night this summer, Sander/Moses Productions gathered its team from Reckless, which was set and shot last spring in South Carolina, for a live-tweeting session in a conference room on the CBS Radford lot in Studio City.
By mid-season in August, the conference room was stuffed with people noshing on chips and Chex mix and swilling soft drinks, alternately creepily quiet as everyone focused on their screens big and small or filled with applause or laughter at specific plot points and the show’s end.
Did those Sunday sessions make a difference for Reckless ratings? Of the 13 new summer shows, it was the only one to see its ratings rise each week from its debut, says showrunner Ian Sander. The only hiccup came when a rain-delayed major golf tournament pre-empted the show one weekend, much to the noisy frustration of some of the show’s followers.
“Reckless threw a Live Tweet party at CBS for every episode and it made a difference,” said Karzen, who also advised Sander/Moses on Reckless. “You tweet during the show, (post on) Facebook and YouTube during the week. It works.”
The live-tweet parties helped build engagement during the Reckless summer run, jumping its Twitter following 88 percent to 10,000 unique tweets by the finale episode, Karzen said.
And when you combine the audiences reached through the tweets by the network, Sander, Moses, the show’s director, writers and stars (and even Coast Guard Commander John Pruett, who was the show’s liaison), the posts reached an audience of 1.1 million people, double the audience size when the season started, while the show’s official Facebook page grew by five times, driven by mid-week posts there.
Among the more tangible results of all those Sunday evening tweet-fests: two of the show’s episodes were among the top 10 iTunes downloads last week, and continue to be a hot seller there. And though CBS hasn’t officially picked up the show for another season, the network has sent the sorts of signals that suggest a return is likely sooner or later, urged on by those passionate fans who want it to return. They even have a hashtag for that: #RenewReckless.