Today, MTV launched the WatchWith iPhone app, a service designed to drive network engagement through social sharing, photos and video, rewards, blog posts, and more. It's part of an aggressive push by the network to capture the "second screen experience," an industry term used to describe the smartphones and tablets people turn to alongside TV.
Distractions from our precious television shows used to be few and far between: the occasional power outage, a knock at the front door or a ring of the downstairs telephone, a parent demanding the plug pulled lest our brains turn to mush. But today's modern couch potatoes really have it rough. Tons of mobile devices and online services beg for our attention simultaneously. According to Nielsen, more than 68% of U.S. tablet and smartphone owners use such gadgets in front of their TVs—more than in any other circumstance, be it lying on a bed, attending a meeting or class, or commuting to work.
But brands and marketers are fine with that. They view it as another opportunity to sell you stuff. That's why startups such as GetGlue and IntoNow, which Yahoo recently acquired for nearly $30 million, are growing so rapidly—they let users "check in" to TV shows on their smartphones and chat about them with friends. It's why social TV content guide Peel has raised $24 million in funding, to help you discover new shows from your iPhone and iPad. And it's why MTV has made the "second screen experience" central to its digital strategy, having in recent months launched WatchWith and VH1's Co-star app, fun, interactive platforms that enable viewers to engage with each other during live broadcasts.
"The idea is to create a really deep level of engagement across every screen that adds up to be an incredibly immersive experience," says Kristin Frank, MTV and VH1's GM of digital. "For the consumer, it creates an enormous amount of loyalty for our shows and stars, and gives us a deeply engaged audience across all screens, which we can ultimately monetize."
During this season's premiere of The Jersey Shore, for example, viewers could tune into MTV's app to follow real-time tweets and Facebook comments, read up on past episodes, and check out additional video footage. For other programs, users are able to connect with stars of the shows or take quizzes to compete against friends over series trivia. "We believe the more engaged our fans are with our content, the more loyal they are going to be," Frank says," and the more likely they are going to tune into show premieres, and talk about us and spread word-of-mouth. It really helps in terms of driving ratings, driving brand engagement, driving passion for our shows and stars."
The strategy appears to be working. The season premiere of The Jersey Shore broke the all-time record for one-day social performance of a TV series, according to SocialGuide, a social activity measurement firm. More than 190,892 unique viewers were talking about the broadcast online—a whopping 56% during the actual airtime. The East Coast premiere alone received more than one million tweets. Trendrr.tv, another social media TV tracker, found The Jersey Shore boasted more social activity than any of the other top 10 broadcast shows and nine other cable shows—combined. And for the month of July, VH1 hit Trendrr's list of the top social cable TV networks, ahead of HBO and USA. (MTV placed fifth, but will likely jump to the top after the success of The Jersey Shore's August premiere.)
The issue, however, is that it's hard to say how much social media is actually contributing to goosed ratings—a topic Fast Company looked at in-depth in our cover story on Twitter TV. MTV says it's still too early to say. Are social media helping to drive up show ratings?
"That's the assumption," says Mike Scogin, MTV's head of mobile. "I think it's going to take a deeper dive by a network such as us, along with Twitter, Facebook, and Nielsen—to really get down to minute-by-minute ratings."
Still, there's no doubt it's creating word-of-mouth marketing—earning a trending topic (which reportedly can cost brands upwards of $100,000 to purchase) on Twitter by the sheer force of fan social activity is an incredibly valuable advertisement. "People are going to see tweets about it and say, 'Oh, I didn't know this show was on—I'm going to tune in,'" Scogin says.
And regardless of whether that helps to boost ratings, the "second screen experience" will, at the very least, generate a new source of revenue. Scogin and Frank imagine a time when advertising on the networks' apps will correspond with live TV. Since they often know what's coming on the shows, the social team can curate ads around content—say, an ad for the dress Lady Gaga is wearing during the Video Music Awards, or a link for the song playing in the background of The Real World.
"It opens up tons of possibilities," Scogin says. "TV is a discovery tool for a lot of things—music, fashion—and we're going to build an ecosystem that we can monetize."