Thursday, September 15, 2011

"America's Got Technology": Participatory Television

September 6, 2011

Man is, at one and the same time, a solitary being and a social being. As a solitary being, he attempts to protect his own existence and that of those who are closest to him, to satisfy his personal desires, and to develop his innate abilities. As a social being, he seeks to gain the recognition and affection of his fellow human beings, to share in their pleasures, to comfort them in their sorrows, and to improve their conditions of life.   – Albert Einstein

This summer, I have had the fortunate opportunity to handle social media for the live tapings of the hit NBC show, “America’s Got Talent” (AGT). Now in its sixth season in the U.S, the talent competition show features singers, dancers, magicians, comedians, and more who compete for $1 million and a Las Vegas headliner show. Ultimately, the results of their fate are decided by an audience vote.

Whether they come from Wasilla, Lubbock, or New York City, the contestants arrive in Hollywood with big dreams and often little knowledge of how powerful the voice of social media can be. NBC, on the other hand, does. To help encourage viral messaging (and thereby increase audience participation and viewing), hosts social media portals for each individual contestant on Facebook, Twitter and an NBC/AGT website blog. Contestants are instructed to only use these portals during the run of the show and post only in context of AGT (not other gigs) or risk eligibility.
Since most of them are unfamiliar with branding themselves through digital storytelling, one of my assignments as a social media publicist is to advise and guide the contestants on how to best tell their stories on different social media platforms. After all, the better the storytelling, the better the audience interaction and participation in the show, all which can ultimately translate in to higher votes—and network ratings.

We are Prosumers in the Connected Age

We are living in the Connected Age of the prosumer.   Up until now, society as a whole has been living in a consumer culture where TV, film, radio and political media communications were a one-way street and big business had control over their messaging. Thanks to the advent of the Internet, mobile and social technologies, society has evolved into a participatory culture where the public is no longer just a consumer but rather a prosumer with the freedom to act as contributors or producers of message content.

This communication has been accelerated by the iPhone technology by Apple, which shockingly, was only introduced a little over four years ago. As this type of mobile technology has spread across other platforms such as the iTouch, Droid and iPad, so has the ease of use and mobility. As of January, 2010, the average age of a smartphone (WebOS) is 36 years old and downloads 5.7 apps per month ( This means that the use of mobile/social technology has “aged up” in the past few years and the general population is increasingly engaging in creating and utilizing participatory media. Add in the flexibility and portability of social media communication outlets like Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, WordPress, and technologies like the QR code, and the power of the message has suddenly shifted away from big business and into the hands of the prosumer.

Just like a person expects to have cable service available to them in their neighborhood, this shift in communication power means that people are also increasingly expecting to have interactive media available to them as well. Like cable TV, they don’t have to participate, but they expect to at least have the option available to them if they choose to.

For this reason, competition shows like “America’s Got Talent” and “Survivor” and live broadcasts of award shows like “The Grammys” and “The Oscars” lend themselves perfectly to the use of participatory media. Viewers can communicate with the talent or each other during the voting and judging process, helping shape their viewpoints and decisions about who is good, who is bad, who should move forward, win or lose.’

When people participate in media, it is because they want to be connected, to have a relationship with whatever subject matter they are interacting with.
In the tenth season of the hit singing competition show, “American Idol,” one of the singers who won a ticket to Hollywood was Chris Medina. Not only was he talented, but he also had a moving back story about how his fiancĂ© had suffered a brain injury right before they were to be married. While his talent as a singer was worthy of moving high up in the competition, people were also moved by his strength to stand by his fiancĂ© despite the tragedy. This emotional connection motivated viewers to start following Medina across all media platforms, including Twitter, Facebook as well as entertainment news, which surely led to greater success on the show.

In another example, if there are two contestants who look, sing and dance exactly like Christina Aguilera, the chances are—like with Chris Medina–the one with the best story will win. Why? Because we aren’t just living in the Information Age any longer, we are living in the Connected Age. Humans are social by nature, and in today’s world it is not as much about whether people are physically or electronically connecting, it’s about in what context the communication is being told.

A typical tweet or Facebook post would be something like, “I’m so nervous about going on stage in an hour.” That’s normal and expected, and also not very connecting. If a person said instead, “I’m so grateful my grandmother put me in a choir, because at least I have experience and God’s on my side when I go out there,” it’s more personal. This perceived intimacy provides more bonding, making the reader feel more connected and willing to invest their time and emotions into efforts of the person tweeting.

That’s why I have been telling contestants that more than ever before, content is King and context is Queen, and they must be married together. The way Batman would tweet as an animated series is different than a live action film, comic book, novel, or age-appropriate Halloween costume, mobile app or video game. Yet no matter what platform Batman’s story is told, there are still things that Batman would and wouldn’t do. The content and parameters are so consistent and strong, that as long as the stories are told in context, the quality of the character stays intact and so does the brand. The same goes with their own personal branding.

AdMob, Inc. (n.d.). January 2010 Mobile Metrics Report. Retrieved September 2, 2011 from
Barbeito, Jose. (n.d.) Media Literacy: Main Concepts. Retrieved September 3, 2011 from
International Marketing (January 10, 2009).  The Prosumer – Interactive media usage and its consquence.  Retrieved September 3, 2011 from

This post, along with other great Media Psychology blogs, can also be accessed viewed at

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