By Brian Steinberg
NBC’s venerable "Dateline," now entering two decades on the air, sparks any number of associations among viewers. For some, "Dateline" is all about the calm visages of Stone Philips and Jane Pauley, the program’s first anchors. (Lester Holt is taking over from Ann Curry this season.) For others, the name revives thoughts of "To Catch a Predator," the series that sent correspondent Chris Hansen into sting operations targeting pedophiles. And plenty of people remember when it seemed like "Dateline" was on nearly every night in the 1990s. (While it once aired three nights a week, it’s now on Fridays and, once the football season ends, Sundays as well.)
But these days, "Dateline" should conjure thoughts of a nice glass of wine and a Friday-night mystery — at least according to the program’s top producers.
For several months, "Dateline" personnel have studied the behavior and postings of the show’s fans on Facebook and other social-media milieu, allowing them to create a campaign now that speaks to the way viewers interact with the program, not its smiling personalities or lurid headlines.
The campaign will also urge viewers to participate, generating more material in the process. "You’ll see promotions both online and on air, basically asking the question, ‘How do you Dateline?’ and then we expect to collect the responses we get and turn those, essentially, into a user-driven, user-created campaign," said David Corvo, senior executive producer of "Dateline."
Viewers will be able to access an interactive Facebook application that will allow them to send video to "Dateline" producers about their routine around the program. Already, executives said, they have seen posts about the type of wine people are drinking when they watch, or the company expected to come over for a round of "Dateline."
Expect to see the Twitter hashtag "#howdoyoudateline" calling fans to arms, trying to harness their interest as often as possible, not only on broadcast night. "A program lives beyond its broadcast presentation, so people are responding to us before, during and after a program airs," Mr. Corvo said. "We’re trying to acknowledge that and respond to that."
The show captured about $117.4 million in ad revenue in 2010, according to Kantar.
The campaign spotlights the changing ways in which TV networks are reaching out to their audiences. The traditional route for this type of thing is for the network to highlight the quality of its news team, the popularity of its on-air staff or the "gotcha" quality of its stories, but this effort is asking fans of the show to sound off about why they feel connected to it.
News promotion has been something of a "one-way conversation" for decades, said Kieran Clarke, executive VP-general manager of Meredith Video Studios and a veteran TV-news executive for various TV stations. Promos have long focused on "what we assume through research that you want to know about, and we’re going to provide it to you and this is when we’re going to provide it to you."
NBC has some impetus for the new campaign strategy. Over the past 10 months, the show’s audience on Facebook has grown to 173,000 users from 47,000. Followers on Twitter have grown to nearly 30,000 from 14,000.
"People are in there every weekend, kind of watching each other at the beginning of each show — ‘Good to see you back,’" explained Liz Cole, an executive producer of "Dateline." "They are really talking about the story and talking about seeing a clue, analyzing a clue and wondering what it means. They start speculating on how the story will end. There have been stories where we’ve had 1,000 comments during the show, East Coast and West Coast."
Ultimately, producers hope the promotional barrage lends some new life to a veteran program that, Mr. Corvo said, might be taken for granted by some because of its longevity.
"All these campaigns are designed to increase your viewership and make it a little younger," he said, but "we want to raise the awareness of what a vital program it is" despite the fact that it’s heading into its twentieth season.#