This past Sunday night, I believe an interesting and possibly important moment happened in the history of television during the Survivor Finale. With all due respect to John Cochran and his victory, I believe this moment came AFTER he was crowned the winner of unanimous victory of Survivor Caramoan.
The format for this season’s reunion show was going to be different. Jeff Probst announced last week that he wanted to viewers to send in their questions via tweets to ask the players at the reunion. Jeff seems to understand more than most in Hollywood how important social media is to broadcasting and has been one of the first to use twitter to supplement the viewing experience of a network show.
At the reunion show, Jeff Probst, seemed absolutely delighted to see one of the show’s breakout stars evolve from a nerdy Survivor pushover to a dominant winner of the game. Living up to his promise, Jeff turned to one of the pre-selected questions that came from social media. Jeff reads the following tweet, which was submitted to him on the Wednesday before the finale. (You can watch this unfold on CBS.com at 5:30 in to the reunion show)
#survivorfinale How does Cochran feel about being considered a sex symbol now?
(In this column, I will simply applaud the show for getting more interactive and won’t be critical about the idea of asking four-day-old tweets in after viewers have watched an exciting 2-hour finale. It’s all about baby steps right now.)
After reading the question from twitter, Jeff Probst asks Cochran what it’s like being a sex symbol with women propositioning him online. Cochran responds:
“Well, first off you can follow me on twitter at @JohnMCochran…”
There is a burst or laughter followed by some groans. There is a shot of Malcolm, whom appears to roll his eyes. We imagine that several executives in a nearby control room facepalm and Jeff Probst’s heart rate climbs like Erik looking for a coconut.
Cochran continues, “How do I feel about being a sex symbol? First of all, you should tweet me and I’ll show you how much of a sex symbol I am.”
Jeff, feeling that Cochran has gone off point, tries to get back on to the question about Cochran’s love life. Jeff then realizes Cochran says that he is available and tells @4greyz to contact Cochran because he is “on there”.
It is clear that if there’s anything that Jeff Probst seems to loathe, it’s the self-promoting reality star. Many recall the look of disgust he gave to Stephanie LaGrossa during the Heroes vs. Villains finale when she answered a question directed to her with a plug for “Filet Mignon Pizza” at her new restaurant. It is understood by everybody involved that “plugging” during the reunion show is very much frowned upon.
While Cochran’s self-promotion may have been a transgression of an unwritten rule, you cannot argue with its effectiveness. Cochran began the day of the finale with approximately 42,000 twitter followers. After plugging his twitter at the reunion show, Cochran has seen his twitter following grown to over 117,000 in the last few days. This is the point in the article where you say, “So if you say your twitter name on tv you get more twitter followers, but this isn’t exactly a Harvard Law school thesis here!”
(Sadly for Cochran’s potential suitor, @4Greyz, a national TV mention on a show seen by close to 10 million only resulted in a twitter profile with 86 followers before I just became 87).
The CBS television network nor Survivor is in the business of promoting Cochran’s twitter account so you can understand the apprehension when something like this happens. People pay a lot of money to get their messages promoted during the commercial breaks of Survivor and free promotion sets a bad precedent. Coincidentally, if Cochran wanted to purchase the time on Survivor to promote his twitter in that moment, it would likely cost him the entire amount of prize money he just won on the show.
While there are plenty of reasons for CBS to be unhappy about this, I believe Cochran telling people to follow him on twitter during a live finale is a POSITIVE thing for Survivor. Tens of thousands of people who were watching that night likely had their first social media interaction that they’ve ever had with Survivor. These people love Cochran, but they love him BECAUSE he was on Survivor. They have now become more emotionally invested in this television program because they have now had a personal interaction with one of the stars on your show. Making the viewers feel involved is the reason broadcast television networks are spending money in social media.
CBS put a lot of energy in to their own social media. The official twitter account for the show, @Survivor_Tweet has over 216,000 followers at the time of writing. The account provides news about the show, links to videos and engages the fans with questions about the episode. All of these functions have value for promoting the show and the Survivor brand. However, the challenge for many brands (not just television franchises) is that we are on social media because we want to interact with people (that’s why it’s called SOCIAL media). A twitter profile for a TV show can give us information but there is no emotional connection.
Every single one of Cochran’s new followers want to hear HIM talk about Survivor. After every future episode of the show, they’ll wait to hear what HE has to say and ask him questions that they want to know. This will cost CBS no money and no time. Cochran’s twitter presence will help build community around Survivor and reinforce the network’s marketing and brand building of the show. For the rest of the time that Survivor is on the air, Cochran will have something to say about the show and people will want to hear it.
I don’t want to make this specifically about Cochran and his twitter. I think a reality TV show should be interested in promoting its stars on twitter. Had CBS promoted where to follow @MalcolmWHW on twitter, he surely would have several hundred thousand followers himself. Surely some of those followers might be the same people as Cochran’s new followers, but I suspect that the average Malcolm fan isn’t the same person as the average Cochran follower. It was a missed opportunity to capture all of the excitement around Malcolm in this moment and get them more invested in Survivor by interacting with THEIR favorite player.
While I feel it was a missed opportunity for the network, you could easily make the case that it was a missed opportunity for Malcolm himself. The chart below compares the number of twitter followers for @JohnMCochran and @MalcolmWHW since Wednesday night’s episode.
Cochran has about 25,000 fewer twitter followers for his profile than Malcolm does. That is until Sunday when Cochran blows past Malcolm to where they currently sit now, with Malcolm trailing by 40,000 followers. In the final tribal council, Malcolm asked Cochran to tell him the one trait that Cochran had that Malcolm lacked in order to win his vote. Cochran answered that Cochran had more insecurity than Malcolm did which won over Malcolm’s vote – another acceptable answer could have been a keen understanding of social media.
I don’t believe a network should promote the twitter profile of EVERY person on a show. In the case of this particular season, the Survivor franchise is very lucky to have two highly likable and extremely different young men to promote in Cochran and Malcolm. They’re both in the their mid twenties and both will certainly be back on Survivor in the coming years. On a night when they are crowned winner and fan favorite respectively, why not try to capture lightning in a bottle and build up their online profiles?
In the growth of Cochran on twitter, we got to see the pretty side of social media, but the Survivor finale also reared the ugly side of social media. After last Wednesday’s show when Dawn Meehan betrayed Brenda and voted her out of the game, many Survivor fans took to twitter to express their displeasure with Dawn. Dawn received hundreds of angry tweets full of expletives that ought to be reserved for people whom commit crimes more serious than a reality TV backstabbing.
The beauty of Reality TV and social media is that you can tell your favorite TV characters what your thinking and you’re more invested in the experience. When Cochran wins immunity, you can tweet him a high five. When Dawn votes out Brenda, you can rake her over the coals as if you were on the jury. Scripted television does not offer us the same opportunity. We don’t ever get to interact with the Dr. Sheldon Cooper or an opportunity to tell off @RealKingJoffrey when he’s acting like a jerk. The viewers interactivity with the real people on the show makes the viewer part of the experience and makes the show a more valuable product.
I’m sure there are many at the networks that would have reservations about helping their reality stars build a social media presence. There are many bad apples in the reality TV bunch. There are more than a few reality stars who are offensive, racist and homophobic on twitter and say horrible things about the show and it’s participants. For the networks, there surely would be concerns like “What if we build up “Reality Star X” on twitter and then she went on to bash the show or even worse, one of the sponsors?
It’s a valid concern but I believe the potential good drastically outweighs the worst case scenarios. It isn’t written anywhere, but there is an agreement between a reality tv star and a twitter follower that says: I will follow you as long as you tweet information that is relevant, interesting and appropriate to the show I like. A platform like Twitter is an opt-in medium, so a when twitter user feels like a person they are following is no longer providing what they want, they can always unfollow.
The use of social media and it’s impact on television is always interesting to me. For the first 60 years of broadcasting the networks had been able to control the publicity and messaging about their content. With the ratings for broadcast shows slipping from year to year, it’s time for a bit of a paradigm shift. While I don’t think promoting the twitter profiles of the stars of reality shows will be a magic elixir, I think it’s a smart strategy that will only reinforce the existing marketing of these shows and get television viewers more invested in these shows.
For more on this subject, you could start off by following me @RobCesternino