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KOMU scales back social media inside innovative TV show

KOMU has been leading the way in incorporating real-time social media elements into a live TV news broadcast, especially around Google+ Hangouts. Last September, the station launched News_U, which incorporated Hangouts on air along with other ways for the audience to participate. Anchor Sarah Hill grew a huge Google+ following across the globe. But now KOMU “plans to scale back on how we present interactivity in a way our audience is more willing to accept,” explains Interactive Director Jen Lee Reeves. “The dominance of social media will be toned down.”

Why? “This is partly the challenge of bringing new delivery to a traditional space,” Reeves explains in a blog post. “It’s also proof of the challenge of creating audience in new ways but not having the ability to measure the audience for sales to find non-traditional ways to fund the newscast.” Or to put it another way, “How can we take the power of [Hill's] 900,000+ circles inside Google+ and translate that into funding for our news station? We don’t have answers just yet.”

Or in other words, the business is still run on ratings and local ad dollars. As Reeves told Poynter, “Our ideas are competing with car dealerships.”

That’s not going to change overnight in local TV — and that pace of change is often dictated by local advertisers and agencies, not just TV sales departments. But the question isn’t whether the opportunity exists, but how to unlock those dollars.

I think there are few more things in play here. First, there’s a balance between social participation and the show itself. Often, the stay-at-home demographic isn’t impressed — they just want good TV. But we’ve seen a few promising advances to make social a more natural element of live TV, including efforts by Mass Relevance and new partnerships announced by both Chyron and VizRT to seamlessly integrate social media in existing TV graphics experiences. And there are new approaches to social integration — such as Twitter hashtag voting — which amplify engagement of the show. Then there’s the rapid ascendance of the second screen. We’re early here, and highly social local shows have the potential to drive big ratings.

Again, it’s not a question of whether a socially-infused newscast will drive audiences, but how to do it. And the only way to learn is to experiment.

There’s also the non-local element of social participation. KOMU built up a big Google+ presence that transcended its market. If there’s a large amount of local social participation, it should help ratings. But out-of-market doesn’t count, both for ratings and the local advertisers who want to reach local people. And by the way, media companies can’t directly monetize their social audiences, thanks to strict terms of service set in place by Twitter, Facebook and Google+.

So there are challenges, but as Reeves says, the important thing is to get out and try. “We aren’t backing away from the communities we’ve built and continue to build online,” she writes. “It may look different on air, but we will continue to learn, grow and help as journalism changes.”

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