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Water-Cooler Effect: Internet Can Be TV’s Friend

By Brian Stelter
Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

Remember when the Internet was supposed to kill off television?

That hasn’t been the case lately, judging by the record television ratings for big-ticket events. The Vancouver Olympics are shaping up to be the most-watched foreign Winter Games since 1994. This year’s Super Bowl was the most-watched program in United States history, beating out the final episode of “M*A*S*H” in 1983.

Awards shows like the Grammys are attracting their biggest audiences in years. Many television executives are crediting the Internet, in part, for the revival.

Blogs and social Web sites like Facebook and Twitter enable an online water-cooler conversation, encouraging people to split their time between the computer screen and the big-screen TV. The Nielsen Company, which measures television viewership and Web traffic, noticed this month that one in seven people who were watching the Super Bowl and the Olympics opening ceremony were surfing the Web at the same time.

“The Internet is our friend, not our enemy,” said Leslie Moonves, chief executive of the CBS Corporation, which broadcast both the Super Bowl and the Grammy Awards this year. “People want to be attached to each other.”

Seeking to capitalize on the online water-cooler effect, NBC showed the Golden Globes live on both coasts for the first time this year, and the network reportedly wants to do the same for the Emmy Awards this fall, so the entire country can watch (and chat online) simultaneously.

But sometimes the effect works even when the program is not live. Rachel Velonza, a 23-year-old from Seattle, knew that Johnny Weir failed to win a medal in figure skating long before she ever turned on a television last Thursday, but she stayed up until almost midnight, enduring NBC’s much-ridiculed tape delay because she wanted to see for herself why he wound up in sixth place. She knew all her friends were watching because they were talking about it on Twitter (which says it counts 50 million posts every day) and Facebook (which says it surpassed 400 million members this month).

“Even though knowing ahead spoils the program, you just can’t help but see for yourself what all these people are talking about,” she said.
NBC says it thinks the habits of people like Ms. Velonza partly explain why the ratings for the Olympics are up noticeably. “People want to have something to share,” Alan Wurtzel, the head of research for NBC Universal, said from Vancouver. He said the effects of online conversations were
“important for all big event programming, and also, honestly, for all of television going forward.”

If viewers cannot be in the same room, the next best thing is a chat room or something like it. That’s what MTV found last fall during the Video Music Awards: the Twitterati were in a tizzy when Kanye West snatched a microphone from Taylor Swift in the middle of her acceptance speech. The show had an average of nine million viewers, its best performance in six years.

The Recording Academy, which presents the Grammys, mounted a digital campaign to promote the awards show this year, signing up Facebook fans and monitoring Grammy-related Twitter messages. Peter Anton, the academy’s vice president for digital media, said it was not a coincidence that the awards show notched a 35 percent gain over last year’s audience totals.

Watching the Olympics, Della Lee, a disabled mother of twins in Springfield, Ore., found herself joking on Twitter about curling with dozens of fellow viewers, and was much more deeply engaged in the broadcast as a result. “I really got into curling yesterday! It’s a fun sport,” she wrote to a friend later.
The effect is obviously not limited to television. Online conversations can also help or hinder opening weekends for movies and the ratings for politicians. Recent studies of online social networks have affirmed what researchers have long recognized: people seek to be around and be influenced by like-minded individuals.

There are other factors contributing to the ratings spikes: attention-grabbing shows (the Super Bowl featured the New Orleans Saints, a popular underdog), gradual population growth and an economic contraction that some analysts say is leading to more people spending more time at home in front of their TV and computer screens.

Along with those reasons, “increased usage of social media is definitely driving the ratings,” said Jon Gibs, a vice president at Nielsen. He said the Olympic data showingsimultaneous TV-and-Web viewing signaled the growing importance of interactivity to the television experience. Some of the marquee Olympic events are tape-delayed this month, even though Olympic results are instantly available on the Web. But people are still watching the Games in prime time.

Brad Peterson, a lighting designer in New York, heard about the skier Lindsey Vonn’s crash before Thursday’s replay of it on NBC, but watched regardless. After all, he said, “I didn’t know when, how and who won.”

For Mr. Wurtzel, the Olympics are a lab, and so far he said he has found that people who follow the Olympics both on TV and online wind up being heavier viewers of television. Media companies are starting to consider how to incorporate that water-cooler effect — and how to harness it for day-to-day TV shows, too. For the Olympics, NBC is promoting something called “You Be the Judge,” which lets viewers submit their own scores for figure skaters through a Web application and compare their scores to other viewers. The network’s Web site also features a gadget that tracks Twitter opinions about the Games.

Chloe Sladden, director of media partnerships for Twitter, said sites like Twitter let people feel plugged in to a real-time conversation. “In the future, I can’t imagine a major event where the audience doesn’t become part of the story itself,” Ms. Sladden said.

Passion Rules!

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1 John Martin { 02.26.10 at 2:32 pm }

These musings of your reminds me of a recent essay I wrote about the Internet and TV. Certainly from TVs point of view, the Internet is its friend in my case. 🙂


I really know that I cleared my house of televisions on March 17, 2002. I know that over the course of the last seven years, my ability to resolve television-related cultural references has been diminishing; however, over the past three years particularly, I’ve been able to resolve more and more of them with a quick visit to youtube.com.

I know that the number one thing people say to me when they find out I don’t own a television is, “Oh. I hardly watch my TV at all; I mostly leave it on in the background to keep me company.” I know they say this even though my statement about not owning a television myself makes no value judgment about people who do, which makes them sound a little defensive, or perhaps guilty, about owning and watching one themselves.

I know that people I meet—who usually find out within a week or two of knowing me that I have no television—will continue, often for months, saying to me, “Oh, have you seen that commercial about…” or “You know the guy that won on the second season of…” but eventually get to the point where they cut themselves off halfway through the question with, “Oh, nevermind.”

I know that surveys that have a question about how much television you watch rarely have an option such as, “I don’t watch television at all,” and practically never have one that says, “I don’t own a television.”

I know that without a television I read a lot more, that I’ve never seen a reality show, and it miffs me that televisions are appearing in public places—airports, my gym, and even the city bus I ride back and forth to work every day. And I know that I’m mostly annoyed by the assumption that, of course, everyone would welcome a television in a public place to keep from having to entertain themselves of their own accord, or more unlikely yet, choose to be quiet and alone with their own thoughts.

And, finally, I know that the increasing confluence of television and the Internet—with offerings such as hulu.com—is making me have this philosophical debate with myself more and more: “If I watch The Office on the Internet, is that considered watching television?”

2 Joe Hice { 02.26.10 at 3:26 pm }

Counts as TV:-0

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