How reality TV is hooking us in

KIN KNIGHT
Last updated 09:17 24/08/2014

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How many screens does it take to watch a reality television show?

"It depends what's got the most battery," says broadcast personality Dom Harvey.

Today's viewer is a multi-tasker, using social media platforms to simultaneously read, write and comment about what they're watching. It's called second-screen engagement - and no genre has tapped into it better than reality television.

This week, New Zealand's biggest networks - TVNZ and MediaWorks - go head-to-head in the battle to dominate social media conversations with the return of DIY competition The Block NZ and the first local production of My Kitchen Rules.

Once, their success would be measured by ratings.

Today, the bean counters will also be noting "second-screen" involvement: Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook participation via mobile phones and tablets.

"It almost gives it that feeling of being at a sports game," says Harvey, who admits to using both his mobile phone and iPad while watching television.

"Suddenly, you've got thousands of people who are all joining you in this activity. The only pitfall I'd say, is it's hard to read what other people are writing, and write your own stuff as well. I'll be scrolling through my feed and reading other people's tweets and suddenly realise I've missed about three minutes of what's happening on television. Then you've got to rewind and hopefully by the time the ad breaks are over, you will have caught up again."

Consider the inconceivability of that statement 15 years ago: Words like "feeds" and "tweets"; the concept of rewinding live television and the bliss of skipping a commercial break.

"I'm a kid of the 80s," says Harvey.

"I was raised in the era when there were just two TV channels and the next day, at school or work, everyone was talking about exactly the same TV shows. There were such limited options."

The "second-screen" experience, where viewers post their thoughts online as the action happens, has been dubbed the new water cooler. Participants enjoy being part of a bigger conversation.

But it's also, says Harvey, "partially an ego thing".

"If you write something that gets favourited 50 times and 29 retweets, it certainly gives you a little bit of a buzz. Which is tragic, I know."

Last year, MTV's parent company Viacom International Media Networks determined that 70 per cent of its young viewers were interacting with other fans via a second screen while watching their favourite shows.

As one American commentator wrote: "The reality television world has started to strategically use social media for some of the heavy lifting to get ratings, which in the past had been placed solely upon the shoulders of some crazy woman or a guy who would eat live rats for $1000.

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"The star characters of these reality shows are now continuously using social media to be in your face daily - if not hourly - with their drama.

"A strong social media presence now comes as a job requirement when you apply for reality stardom."

How does that experience play out here? In March 2011, Greymouth woman Jackie Thomas posted her first tweet: "Why the heck do I have a Twitter? #notfamousenough." Two years later, she won the first series of X Factor NZ. Her followers hit a healthy - for New Zealand, if not spectacular for a pop star - 10,000. (Neil Finn, by contrast, has 24,000; Kimbra has 144,000 and Lorde more than two million).

According to figures provided by TV3, when the series screened, up to 70,000 Facebook fans were actively talking about the show at any one time, and every episode trended on Twitter.

There were downsides. Harvey had to apologise for his tweet that referenced a child molestation storyline from the movie Once Were Warriors. When contestant Grace Ikenasio was eliminated, he wrote "Poor Gracie! First molested in her own bed by uncle bully [sic]. And now kicked out of #xfactornz."

The problem, said Harvey this week, "is you're in the privacy of your own home and often you're writing and you're posting these things without giving it too much thought". 

Reality television is geared to younger viewers, says Ekant Veer, associate professor of marketing at Canterbury University.

"The 15 to the mid-30s age group. These are the biggest users of social media. These are also the biggest group who do not watch TV without another screen in front of them . . . in my day we would listen to the radio and watch TV, but now you're actually conversing with people online while watching TV."

So far so obvious, in a country as digitally connected as New Zealand. Last month, 2.4 million of us visited Facebook and 459,000 visited Twitter.

These figures are a powerful incentive for television-makers to encourage social media.

"It builds increased engagement," says Veer. "And if you're the one left out of that conversation, you're the loser."

Veer says the stronger the engagement, the more likely individuals will tune into a second season, or (importantly for advertisers) watch television as it happens.

"Time shifting" is the technical term for consuming telly when it suits. It's a concern for advertisers who want active eyeballs, not fingers on a fast forward button.

Recent TVNZ commissioned Colmar-Brunton research showed the practice was not as common here as assumed: 70 per cent of households had the capacity to time shift, but only 10 per cent used it exclusively. But reality television makers aren't taking any chances.

MKRNZ's production team includes a social media specialist hired specifically "to ensure the story of the show is being told across various platforms throughout the day and into the night".

When The Block NZ starts playing out, viewers will be able to sign up for Block Out Live, a Kiwibank-sponsored digital Bingo game that can only be played while the show screens.

Veer says that's a move into "advertainment", a practice gaining traction in Europe. "They are games that are essentially promotional campaigns for a company." He cites a recent postal agency example, where participants were invited to deliver a virtual package intact to a specified address by the shortest possible route. "So people were walking around with their cell phones making sure they weren't shaking them . . ."

It's advertising, says Veer. "But they're entertaining, and if they're entertaining, people are going to engage more and if they engage they watch the show and if they watch the show, you're going to get better ratings and better ratings mean more money from advertisers."

But if TV is tapping into the zeitgeist to make more cash, audiences don't appear to mind being monetised. Guy Williams, television funny guy and one of Twitter's 20 most followed New Zealanders, says social media makes reality television "so much better".

"These shows are built on a combination of manic positivity and cheesy emotional story lines. You need sarcastic twitter jokes to level the playing field a little bit.

"Twitter is like texting, but better, because you don't actually need any friends to do it. It's a lot of fun talking about it online because you qualify for a better quality of friends. I've been at some depressing flats where there are eight people sitting around a TV and all of them are looking at their phones."

(Williams is not making this up - his emailed proof was a photograph of nine 20-somethings staring at their phones during an episode of X Factor NZ. They were ignoring both the television and the celery and the cheese platter).

Cate Owen, MediaWork's social media strategist for the past four years, says "all our recent research shows that multiple screens don't detract from the first screen experience".

And the value to the networks? "Of course TV3 is going to tell you how wonderful The Block is," says Owen. "What's key is when fans talk up a show and tell others what they like or don't like about it . . . Some of our best social media content comes from our fans. We didn't plan for someone to make a Lego model of the X Factor NZ set, but when they did, we had the platforms to spread the word and share that with other fans."

Lynley Kirk-Smith, TVNZ's general manager of marketing: "People want to engage 24/7 - the audience is making that choice - and we're following a consumer need."

STARS REVEAL THEIR SECRET KITCHEN RULES

Cooking shows have always topped the reality ratings and have prompted amateur chefs to fire up their own kitchens.

The launch of a homegrown version of My Kitchen Rules is set to reheat the reality show ratings this week so we went out to ask a few Kiwi celebs to dish up their favourite dinner party recipes.

Colin Mathura-Jeffree

NZ Hottest Home Baker host Colin Mathura-Jeffree prefers to keep things classic and familiar when creating a three-course meal to represent his personality.

"I love good food to be hearty, overflowing, old English, full of love and simple. My family had wonderful hearty dinners in winter like this.

"I would do a cheeseboard, classic corned beef with hot mustard, and trifle with so much alcohol it would put a smile on your face and a wiggle in your hips. And let's not forget some great Kiwi wines to go with the meal."

Toni Street

Seven Sharp co-presenter Toni Street would begin with an entree of seafood to "wow the judges from the outset".

"I'd do a crispy yum yum prawn, a seared scallop and salmon sashimi . . . the magic in this would be the homemade yum yum sauce."

Her main would be a seared lamb rump with celeriac shoestring fries with chilli salt (her co-host Mike Hosking tells her celeriac is the "in" thing right now), paired with steamed garlic broccolini and orange "to bring that fresh element".

Dessert would be her whisky crunch ice-cream parfait. "Layers of homemade ice-cream, salted caramel and pecans with fresh raspberry. I haven't found a single person who doesn't like it. It's super easy but looks and tastes impressive. The dessert is super decadent, which fits perfectly with my dining mantra. Every meal should end with something sweet."

Polly Gillespie

The Hits radio co-host Polly Gillespie would make a first course of creamy mushroom and truffle soup with cheesy home-made croutons.

Her main would be a rack of beef with French green beans, blanched and finished off in bacon.

For dessert, a rich chocolate cake with fresh raspberries and coffee latte ice-cream.

"I love rich taste - I have synaesthesia, so highly developed sense of smell and taste, which means I taste things very particularly," she says.

"I can't have anything bitter, and therefore will cook foods that soothe and massage the pallet as opposed to bombard. It probably means I would make good food, but not artsy and edgy!"

COLIN'S ‘ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS' TRIFLE

Take a jam roll and slice it to create a layer of sponge. Place in a glass bowl. Create a booze-laced jelly and layer it so it soaks into the sponge. Add fruit of your choice and custard

Put down another layer of jam roll and repeat the jelly, fruit and custard steps

Top off the trifle with whipped cream

- Sunday Star Times

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