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Neal Baer,
Mark Burnett,
and Greg Yaitanes

3 Top Hollywood Show Runners Explain Why They Love Twitter

Neal Baer, Mark Burnett, and Greg Yaitanes explain their Twitter habits—and why it pays off.

In Hollywood, everyone has an opinion about Twitter.

Filmmakers love it when Twitter unleashes positive word of mouth about their movie and hate it when it doesn't. Network executives question how effective Twitter is in driving TV ratings. Network marketing executives love the way it taps directly into TV's most highly engaged fans.

But perhaps no one adores Twitter more than show runners, who rely on the platform to spark an ongoing conversation about their show over the course of weeks and months and who use the service as a kind of personal dial test (see Neal Baer's comments below), telling them what is and isn't working on air. Fast Company recently spoke with three high-profile show runners about the Twitter phenomenon. Here, they elaborate on why it's become such a crucial element of their job.

Neal Baer, executive producer of Under the Dome:

"Every week, I live-tweet the show. In fact, I think I was one of the first people to do bubble tweets (when I was on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit). I would take a 30-second trailer and bubble it up into a bubble tweet and tweet it to all the fans. Now, every week, I just answer questions. That's been the most successful and most fun. People can ask me anything and I answer during the East Coast feed. I try to do West Coast as well, but every week I've done East Coast.

"For me, it's almost like a dial test, in a way. It's like a dial test in a non-experimental setting. So when you go to Las Vegas and do the dial test, you recruit 30 people and they're all sitting there doing the test. But Twitter is an ongoing dial test because whenever something crazy happens or shocking or stunning, the number of tweets goes up, just as they would on a dial test. Or when people don't like something, the same thing—they go, 'Oh, that's crap.' 'I don't believe that.' It's a very interesting dial test for both writers and the producers and, I'm sure, for the networks.

"All of our actors tweet. Or most of them. That's very effective. For example, Colin Ford, he's 15, he plays Joe. He has this massive—thank, God—Twitter audience of young girls. I can't remember, but the last time I looked he had something like 100,000 followers. So if you go on Twitter right now, you'll see Colin Ford followers, whatever they call themselves. You go #UnderTheDome, you'll see Colin Ford! These young women really have a presence. And what's interesting is that that's not a traditional CBS demo. So we could say that Twitter is an interesting way to hit a non-CBS demo of girls 12 to 25."

Mark Burnett, executive producer The Voice, Survivor, The Bible:

"With The Voice, we decided to really work with Twitter and, rather than make Twitter just happen to be an extra, I would say that it's woven into the show's narrative. We don't just throw hashtags on the screen. We work with our talent and our fans to carefully integrate that social experience into key moments of the broadcast. We actually show tweets (from viewers) on the screen. I'm pretty sure with The Voice that it was the first time doing that. People who are older—I don't mean age, I mean older in their thinking—would worry that it would distract from the enjoyment of the show. But the execs at NBC, who are very hip and very cool, encouraged this. And, in fact, it's raised the experience for the viewer, not reduced it. I have three teenagers: 16, 17, and a 19-year-old. I know how they watch TV. I know how they watch movies. There's always a second-screen experience. It doesn't bother them. They're able to think of three things at once.

"If you look at something like The Bible, on the face of it, you think, Well, how would The Bible be a great Twitter thing? I had dinner at my house before I did The Bible, like a year and a half before, with the Twitter team. Not about The Bible, just about social media in general. I just wanted to learn from them—we had a fun dinner; we talked. And from that, they introduced us to their faith team (which worked with Burnett to integrate Twitter into the miniseries). As a result: The Bible was a huge Twitter experience. I remember Oprah was tweeting about Samson and Delilah.

"Then it took off from there. There were some really funny tweets going around. We had a sponsor on the show, Christian Mingle, which is like a Christian dating site. So there was one tweet that said, 'Don't date Deliliah . . . Even if you meet her on Christian Mingle.'

"One thing I'm a real believer in is the social ratings for TV shows. It's going to be such an important economic subject. Let me explain why. The current rating system on TV, which tells me, okay, X number of people between the ages of 18 and 49 watched this show and it breaks it down by male and female, 18-49. Well, okay. But what exactly is that telling me? Do you think a person who's 18 consumes the same as someone who's 49? Not really. Then you ask: What's the point of advertising? The point of advertising is to sell things, to move products and services off shelves. So don't you think the deeper information, like the engagement level of groups of people, will tell an advertiser more about how their commercial has been accepted? It's a logical correlation that cars will be test driven, cereal will be purchased, insurance will be purchased—whatever the advertiser is trying to sell. A rating in and of itself is not even half the information advertisers need. But social media tells you the engagement. So I believe that advertisers are going to absolutely embrace Twitter's new ratings system with Nielsen. It's a rating that gives a metric for engagement. It's critical."

Greg Yaitanes, executive producer and director, Banshee:

"(Twitter cofounder) Biz Stone and I did the first-ever live Twitter commentary. I was doing a short-lived series called Drive for Fox. I remember going to them and saying, 'There's this new platform.' I tried to explain it. I wanted to use it. But I could not bang them over the head and try and get them to pay attention. This was 2007. If you look at the Twitter handle FoxDrive, you'll see this commentary, where Biz and I did an East Coast and a West Coast feed. All the people in the show, people like Emma Stone, who all would go on to great things, became heavy users of it. But it was a very interesting journey to get people to see the potential in it. But right from the go, I thought there was something to be done. The first of which was building a community.

"When House finished its run and I went to Banshee, I was really searching for a place that would give me the canvas to innovate and continue to link Hollywood and Silicon Valley together. When I look at where we started with FoxDrive and I look at what Banshee is doing with Twitter and the social platform—it's invaluable to us. In fact, we got our little show to be the most trended hashtag of the day on the finale. As a show creator, as a content creator, as a storyteller, to me, the show I'm making is just a component of the bigger picture. When I look at our call sheet today, which outlines the day's work, if I were to read it to you right now, it would be like: Scene 20; Scene 13; Banshee Vine video for this character; Banshee Vine video for that character . . .

"The biggest example of how Banshee and Twitter are integrated is, if you watch or go online, look at our title sequence. People took to Twitter to decipher our title sequence. It has a face dial built in, a combination. The numbers in that combination are relevant to different parts of the story of the season of Banshee. People started to clue in without having to be told, like, 'What do these numbers mean? Do they add significance? I think they do because I'm seeing these numbers appear throughout the show." So they decided to decipher them. People took to Twitter to figure out what they meant. Then there was the added component that if they took those numbers and went to WelcomeToBanshee.com, we had a vault there. If they put it in the safe dial, it unlocked more content, which took them deeper and deeper into the story."

[Base Image: Flickr user Jeff Ruane]

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