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Guest Blog: Forget Must-See TV, Welcome to the Era of Must-Participate TV

When the first commercial TV network in the U.S. went on the air nearly 70 years ago, so began a seemingly unending era of one-way network transmissions to the viewers. Yet despite all the evolutionary changes that have remade the TV business in the last 20 years, too many people in the industry today are still producing and broadcasting that one-way, passive TV viewing experience to the audience.

Nowhere is that more evident than in the reluctance by so many smart, creative people to embrace and benefit from the opportunities that a web-connected, multi-media-obsessed audience clamors for. Creating quality shows is and always will be the most important consideration for driving tune in, but now viewers want to engage in where the storyline goes.  

Not a stunt nor gimmick, the existence of what many have referred to as ‘participation TV’ is serving as a vital tool and a new viewing accelerator for a business that is hungry to boost ratings, enhance revenues and provide advertisers with a more compelling and effective marketing spend that simply doesn’t exist anywhere else.

The company I lead, iPowow, has been at the nexus of this change in TV since the company was founded five years ago. It’s always been our mandate to take a leadership position as the technology has evolved, and sure enough iPowow has had proven success in providing the technology and platform that is fueling viewer participation and engagement. It has delivered on millions of viewers’ desire to achieve a more meaningful connection with the shows they’re watching. That success isn’t an isolated phenomenon either, but rather I believe it offers a template for others in the TV business to follow.

Viewer engagement and participation are becoming “must-have,” experiential elements, essentially turning “must-see TV” into “must-participate TV.” Such diverse, validated, iPowow “participation TV” successes as the NHL All-Star Draft, Modern Family and Project Runway speak for themselves. What’s more, they’re meeting four key objectives that the TV business strives for: 

  • Engage viewers longer
  • Increase ratings
  • Generate new incremental revenues
  • Collect marketer- and media-valued audience data and metrics. 

Producers, programmers or marketers who are reluctant to utilize the audience engagement tools available today need to move beyond the 1980s. But why should we? Have times changed? Have viewers’ behaviors and preferences changed? Are viewers clamoring to engage with the content? Are marketers and advertisers now looking for integration into the show and better ROI on their media expenditures? We need to move get out of the ’80s because the answer to these key questions is yes.

The key is to create a two-way bridge between the audience and the content, where they have their eyes on the TV and are leaning in. It’s not enough to encourage viewers to visit a website or join a social media conversation. They are taken away from what they are watching when that happens—by posting a tweet, visiting a website—and you’ve lost them.

Unlike so-called “social TV,” which is a conversation around a program, we need to create participation and engagement TV experiences that are integrated into the story as it happens, and updated constantly. Doing that correctly has demonstrable benefits for all TV business stakeholders: 

  • For producers: Viewers in live sports or reality competition shows can interact with hosts in the studio and respond to questions or quizzes. Audiences care about where the story is going, and engagement gets them more invested in the conversation, competition or — with scripted shows — the plot.
  • For network executives: Engaged viewers stay tuned in longer. One of our clients has research that shows their highest ratings precisely correlate with the integration of iPowow polls and questions into the story. Network executives know that engaging viewers for longer will drive ratings and deliver valuable metrics on who’s watching, for how long and who’s returning.
  • For brands/sponsors: They reach consumers in all key areas: on-air, through digital media, social media and on mobile platforms. That longer engagement means creating more impactful marketing messages and consumer connection. 

And, because people are already on their mobile devices — credible research shows that 85% of viewers watch TV with a connected device in their hands — we need to make the best use of this opportunity. Each of those devices is the natural participation TV-enabling companion. Regardless of the genre — live sports, news, comedies or reality — the time for creating better television with real-time engagement at scale, is now. 

By building a loyal and engaged audience, all involved will prosper, delivering the value and ROI that networks and advertisers desire. We need to bring TV fully into the 21st century, ushering in a new platinum age of immersive program experiences with truly two-way, real-time ”viewer participation” that all can easily enjoy. 

iPowow CEO Gavin Douglas is an award winning media producer and TV format developer with 17 years of experience in content production and new format development. He wrote, produced, directed or edited more than 30 television series in 10 countries, and worked on multi-platform projects that link linear media with future media and technology.