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How social media helped make 'Downton Abbey' a hit PBS show

If you haven’t watched Downton Abbey yet, go to Netflix to catch up on season one followed by PBS.com to catch season two. The season finale will air this Sunday. The award-winning British drama created by Julian Fellowes begins the morning the world found out the Titanic sank and centers on the Crawley family and their servants and workers that make up the Downton Abbey estate. The ensemble cast is superb — each actor is so uniquely different and complex that you can’t help love everything about the show.

My personal favorite character is Brendan Coyle’s John Bates, who plays Lord Grantham’s servant. Downton has now been bought by 100 countries and has become one of the most popular British shows ever to captivate audiences in the US, even breaking a Guinness World Record. Masterpiece, “the longest-running prime time drama in American television,” and their home PBS, curated and cultivated Downton fans in the US by leveraging a broad mix of social TV.

Lost Remote spoke in detail with two major executives that were in charge of using social TV to help introduce the show to the US, build and feed to the passionate fan base and then keep them entertained in between seasons. Olivia Wong, Senior Account Executive, National Marketing at WGBH Educational Foundation, the station behind Masterpiece and Kevin Dando, Director of Digital Marketing and Communications at PBS, have both shown America that you don’t need hefty budgets and major media spends to captivate viewers with great content. Wong and Dando discuss how they dealt with Downton airing in the UK before the US, how they brought the actors to the states in between seasons and how positive feedback for the show has dominated social TV conversations across the web.

Lost Remote: What social media elements went into launching the show?

Olivia Wong: We approached this season of Downton Abbey from the viewpoint of a fan: “What to do in the period between Season 1 and Season 2?” At the end of Season 1, we wanted to maintain Downton interest/visibility through February 2012, and devised content and activities to “bridge the gap.” From behind-the-scenes looks at the filming of Season 2, cast/crew video Q&A’s, through live tweeting from the Emmy Awards and letting people know that Masterpiece is the home of Downton Abbey in the US, we were providing numerous opportunities for fans to satiate their hunger for all things Downton.

Kevin Dando: In December, PBS and MASTERPIECE hosted a special fan event at the TimesCenter in New York. Here a select group of fans were treated to an extended preview of the premiere episode for Season 2 followed by a panel discussion with a number of Downton’s favorite stars, including Hugh Bonneville (Robert, Earl of Grantham), Elizabeth McGovern (Cora, Countess of Grantham), Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary Crawley), Dan Stevens (Matthew Crawley) and Joanne Froggatt (Anna Smith). More than 500 fans, VIPs and members of the media were in attendance. The event helped to generate buzz among Downton fans, who took to social media to share their excitement about the event. PBS shared video and photos from the event via social media so those who couldn’t attend could be part of the excitement.

The first 10 minutes of Season 2 premiered on the PBS and Masterpiece Facebook pages on December 26. The preview had more than 100,000 views between December 26 and January 8, and the PBS Facebook page gained over 20,000 new fans from the tab. In addition, availability of Downton content, including the preview, on the PBS Facebook page helped propel it past 1 million fans shortly after Downton Abbey, Season 2 premiered. For a handful of priority shows such as Downton Abbey, PBS also uses paid media to drive tune-in to the show. For reference: People, Women’s Day and TV Guide.

LR: When did you start to see how passionate the fans were? Where are they most passionate on social media?

OW: We’ve always known that our Masterpiece fans have been extremely passionate (via direct e-mail feedback and on Facebook and Twitter). The real moment when we crossed over from a cult hit to a main-stream phenomenon was when we began to see celebrity devotee comments and all the fan mash-ups and tributes online. It suddenly went to another level.

KD: We held a sneak preview/Q&A with the Downton Abbey cast in NY in mid-December, weeks before the premiere of its Season 2, and it was pretty obvious then. The New York Times Center in Manhattan was jammed for the event, and the interaction between the fans and the cast that night was electric. Here’s an example of what we saw (video below). After that event, and seeing the reaction to this event video and several others we put out on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and G+ we began to get an idea that something great was about to happen. This video in particular really generated some attention for the program.

LR: What presence does the show have on social media and how has that helped?

OW: Masterpiece has presences on Facebook and Twitter only, at the moment. Both of them really help to create a real interactive online fan community, accessible to the wide range of our series’ fans.

LR: Where are Downton fans most passionate on social media?

KD: I would have to narrow it down to… everywhere. On Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Tumblr, Pinterest – everywhere there are people talking, it seems, there are people talking about Downton Abbey. We’ve all been lucky because we’ve had an immense amount of sustained content from Masterpiece to help fuel these social media discussions. Every week people wanted more Downton Abbey content, and Masterpiece has been right there, making it available, from videos, to live chats, to games.

LR: Have their been issues the UK version airing before it does in the US?

OW: As the series airs in the UK prior to when it airs in the US on Masterpiece on PBS, we’ve maintained a good working relationship with our British counterparts to coordinate messaging. In terms of the UK broadcast date, we consider it an early wave of interest to our broadcast in the US.

KD: In some ways the earlier broadcast in the UK has helped, because viewers there started the word of mouth buzz about the show before its broadcast here in January.

LR: What are future plans to continue to grow the community?

OW: Social media is a constantly morphing environment, and we’ll always be looking for new venues that will both maintain and grow our social media community moving forward. In 2008 we aired adaptations of all six Jane Austen titles (“The Complete Jane Austen”), and many fans of Austen (“Janeites”) became fans of Masterpiece through this series and have stayed for the subsequent programs since. We hope for the same with our Downton Abbey fans! Here are more success metrics that PBS provided us with as well to understand how large the reach was:

Twitter:

  • PBS will also continue successful paid promotion via Twitter using “promoted tweets” targeting both our Twitter channel’s followers, and those who do relevant Downton Abbey-related searches. Engagement rates for these ads are more than 5X Twitter’s average.
  • When Downton Abbey won the Golden Globe Award for Best Mini-Series, Twitter announced that the event peaked at 6,162 tweets-per-second – outpacing last year’s Super Bowl and the Royal Wedding. Twitter tweeted about this achievement to its 7 million+ followers, saying that the Downton Abbey win “had the most Twitter buzz during the Globes broadcast, followed by a shot of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, and The Artist’s win for Best Score.
  • Live Chats are breaking records. The live chat with Hugh Bonneville (Lord Grantham) on Jan 30 had 4900 live readers and 2100 comments during the 1-hour chat). The Laura Carmichael (Lady Edith) chat on Feb 6 had 4200 live readers and 1700 comments during the 1-hour chat. Allen Leech (Branson) is next on February 13.

YouTube

  • Downton Abbey cast interviews have been posted on YouTube; currently, PBS’ channel on YouTube (www.youtube.com/pbs) streams about a million videos per week.
  • Downton, Season 2 YouTube videos have been viewed over 340,000 times, with videos created from the New York event capturing nearly 100,000 views. This video is the most popular Downton piece on YouTube.
  • Related promos and “coming soon” videos debut here at the same time they do on PBS.org and on the MASTERPIECE page on PBS.org.

Google+ (Google Plus)

  • We have used PBS’s growing (and, recently verified by Google) Google+ page to promote discussions about, and tune-in for, Downton Abbey Season 2.

GetGlue:

  • Social check-in service GetGlue has a series of exclusive Downton Abbey stickers that are unlocked when users check in during the broadcast. These check-ins are also broadcasted to users’ social network profiles to amplify the reach and broaden the conversation around the broadcast. For the month of January, there were more than 43,000 check-ins to the episodes, with a social reach of 17.7 million. The number of users checking in grows with each episode.

Downton will be back for a third season that takes place in the roaring twenties.

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