Viewers Now Programmers

Nov 6, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Earlier this year HGTV posted pictures on its Web site that viewers had submitted of their awful bathrooms-garish head-to-toe pink numbers, powder rooms with leopard print from tile to toilet and water closets with toilets backing right up against the tub.

It was a small initiative, a quiet online effort that attracted a handful of HGTV devotees.

But that user feedback and participation became the seed of a new series, “Bad Baths USA,” launching in the second quarter of 2006.

Welcome to the new Internet world order, where television executives are starting to cede some control of their programming to consumers. Where small is the new big. Where there’s wisdom in the crowd.

Perhaps in recognition that in today’s era of technological empowerment virtually anyone can create content cheaply and also fast-forward, pause, delete and mix it all up, a handful of cable TV networks are offering small spheres of next-generation, cutting-edge ways for their audiences to take an ownership stake in network product.

Cable programmers Lifetime and Comedy Central, for example, will offer user-generated content on their broadband sites next year. SoapNet will let Soapnet.com visitors vote for the winner of a walk-on role on the next season of reality show “I Wanna Be a Soapstar.” GSN has recruited online “Lingo” tournament players for on-air contestant spots on the show next year.

However, TV execs who are collaborating with consumers are in the minority-for now, at least. Other programmers likely will start opening their gates soon, in part out of necessity and partly because there’s simply no stopping it, experts said.

Experimentation with viewer input is imperative for networks to compete for viewers’ attention, said Tom Tercek, president of SMG Access, a creative division of Starcom MediaVest that develops content for marketers for new mediums.

“You give people control of media and they will use it,” Mr. Tercek said. “If you don’t give them control, you will lose.”

Consumer-driven programming efforts are uniquely positioned to help make a TV brand-especially a cable brand-resonate with consumers and stand out in a world that is hurtling into online video, a field where cost of entry is absurdly low and everyone and their uncle can do it.

“The days of scarcity of content and distribution of channels is over now that anybody can produce,” Jeff Jarvis, a former TV critic for TV Guide and People magazines and now a popular blogger at buzzmachine.com.

News site Rocketboom.com, for instance, now attracts 75,000 daily viewers to its video blog, up from 50,000 in September, and boasts that it’s created with a “video camera, a laptop, two lights.”

“Now what happens is the little guy can swim in the same pool as the big guy and be found by people,” Mr. Jarvis said.

By embracing the opportunities new technology affords networks to communicate with their viewers, executives can make the most of the passion and interest consumers have in the niches that have long been considered the fundamental building blocks of most basic cable businesses and brands. Not only can accepting contributions from consumers encourage them to feel more invested in the programming, consumer feedback can help networks refine program offerings to better match what viewers really want.

“The bigger media entities understand the power and effect of the bubble-up notion,” Mr. Tercek added. “The ones that can figure that out and incorporate it into the ebb and flow of programming will succeed.”

As the executives that have begun tapping consumer input become more aware of how potent their new initiatives are, they are finding ways to keep their doors open to more consumer-driven programs that pop up organically and unexpectedly.

So far, most viewer-driven content practically just happens to the networks, with the first flicker of a new programming idea coming from fans through the network Web site. Network execs then simply respond to the undeniable opportunity before them.

The genesis of new series “Bad Baths USA,” for example, came from a story in HGTV’s e-mail newsletter on the “world’s ugliest bathroom,” slipping in a mention for readers to submit bathroom horror stories and photos. More than 400 fans sent in tacky shots of their bathrooms. More than 750,000 online votes were cast for the ugliest bathroom.

“We said, ‘This is content,'” said Jim Sexton, VP of account services for Scripps Networks Interactive.

The network posted the photos online and moved on, until a sales meeting in February, when the programming and online groups updated the sales team on various projects. The idea of bad baths caught the attention of the programming group as a potential on-air special. The special aired last month and spawned the upcoming series.

“That is basically the first series that was inspired by actual viewers,” said Burton Jablin, executive VP of programming for Scripps Networks.

HGTV now has another call for input out to consumers, asking its Web site users to submit Christmas light photos and stories. HGTV has no concrete plans for a Christmas light special or series at this point but is open to ideas its viewers might inspire.

By focusing on the tacky, the bathroom series marked a departure from what HGTV is known for: improving home design. And it’s not the kind of show the network would have done on its own. But the fans indicated to HGTV execs that they would embrace a move in a different direction and identified a path to perhaps growing the network’s brand.

“That’s a great example of how if you listen to your fans, they can help you evolve,” Mr. Jablin said. “[HGTV] isn’t a brand unless there are consumers using it or liking it or having relationships with it. The intersection between what we do and how people use what we do is what we’re talking about.”

People are social and trust each other more than they trust marketers and networks. That’s why user-generated content works, SMG’s Mr. Tercek said.

Other networks are cautiously testing how far they can and should stretch their brands through viewer interaction with their new broadband platforms.

Lifetime, for instance, will dabble with a forum for fans to connect with each other by participating in the Lifetime Video Lounge. The new initiative affords viewers opportunities early next year to create and submit video of themselves around a theme or event such as Valentine’s Day, said Lisa Black, VP of business and marketing development for Lifetime Entertainment Services.

Viewers will then vote on the best entries in various categories to be posted in Video Lounge and possibly developed into broadband series of mobisodes.

“Everybody wants their 15 minutes of fame, and quite frankly, it’s cheaper programming,” Ms. Black said.

Also early next year, Comedy Central will run contests in its newly launched broadband site MotherLoad, inviting viewers to submit their own home-brewed comedy content for fans to vote on, said Beth Lewand, VP of digital media for Comedy Central.

“These are people who have grown up with video cameras around the house. New software has made it easier to edit and create video. You don’t have to be an expert or [a] geek,” she said.

Consumers have proven that if given a voice, they will let their wishes be known.

They did at GSN. Earlier this summer the network noticed GSN.com users were playing the online version of “Lingo,” developed by the network, but were doing so in self-created tournament-style play and tracking the results on a separate Web site. One user even became the league administrator. At the time, the network hadn’t decided whether “Lingo” would return for another season.

GSN’s John Roberts, senior VP of interactive and digital media, called the administrator, who at first assumed that GSN was calling to shut down the league. Instead, Mr. Roberts explained that he wanted to offer prizes for the winners.

He shared that story with network President R
ich Cronin, who then gave the go-ahead to experiment with user-driven content for the first time.

As Mr. Cronin discussed with GSN board members which shows to bring back for the next year, board member Michael Zeisser pointed out that when fans are so rabid they create their own tournament, the show should return, Mr. Cronin said.

GSN created a cash tournament this summer, with the prize for the top player for each of 13 weeks being an on-air slot on the next season of “Lingo.”

Then there’s SoapNet, which is built on viewers’ zeal for soap operas.

In a full-circle example of how fans feed the network, starting with a live event, moving to online and migrating to air, fans at the Super Soap Weekend Nov. 12-13 at Walt Disney World will have the chance to act out a scene with Cameron Mathison, a star on ABC’s “All My Children” and host of SoapNet’s “I Wanna be a Soapstar.” During six casting calls over that weekend, audience members will vote on one winner from each session. The network will post those six winners’ videos on its Web site later this month, allowing users to vote on the finalist, who will snag a walk-on role on the next season of “I Wanna Be a Soapstar.”

There are other initiatives afoot at the soap-centric network. General Manager Deborah Blackwell said SoapNet has reached out to schools including Boston College and Harvard, where students have created their own soap operas and asked the student filmmakers to submit those shows for the network to evaluate as possible broadband series.

Ms. Blackwell said SoapNet’s goal is simply to live on multiple platforms and provide multiple touchpoints. The reason: serve passionate fans and deliver them back to the network-on-air or online-to drive ratings, ad sales and distribution.

But some of these examples are still just baby steps, Mr. Jarvis said. Networks need to think further and bigger and do more: make content available online for users to remix, ask audiences to find the best videos in a given area, he said.

“You have to get past the notion that it has to be on your pipe and part of your brand,” he said. TV networks probably aren’t ready for that sort of unfettered, free consumer reign yet. Mr. Sexton at Scripps said there has to be some moderation of user-generated content. HGTV monitors its message boards to ensure they don’t devolve off-topic into conversations about politics, religion, war or other areas. But the network won’t intervene if user input is inaccurate, for instance, on a project. The Web is a wide-open area for input and ideas, and a TV network must accept certain inherent risks, he said.