Keeping up with the Joneses

You don’t need to have read Jeremy Paxman’s soul-searching MacTaggart lecture from the recent MediaGuardian Edinburgh International Television Festival to know that the British television industry is in a bit of a flap.

Shrinking audiences, more channels competing for the same viewers and the increasing popularity of the internet, mp3 players and mobile phones were making life difficult for broadcasters even before the recent phone voting and documentary falsification scandals.

But while some are wringing their hands, a number of producers, entrepreneurs and advertisers are trying to recapture lost TV audiences by injecting professional television content directly into the world of online social networking.

June saw the launch of Where Are The Joneses?, a YouTube-hosted ‘webcom’ created by TV production company Baby Cow and digital agency Imagination. And earlier this month, social networking platform Bebo launched its teen drama KateModern, produced by the team behind hit YouTube drama lonelygirl15.

The Joneses are sponsored by Ford, whose S-MAX car features in every episode, while KateModern has struck deals with a number of household brands whose products will be written into the script, just like in the original ‘soap’ operas.

Both programmes air in 2-5 minute episodes and are highly interactive, with viewers able to suggest programme ideas and, in the case of the Joneses, submit scripts via a wiki and even appear in the show. The Joneses is a particularly comprehensive case study in using social media to engage and involve viewers, with the characters writing blog posts, sending Twitter updates, mapping their whereabouts on Platial and networking with their fans on Facebook.

(Yes, the characters aren’t real people, but the internet makes such ontological niceties largely irrelevant. One of the most interesting things about lonelygirl15 was that after it was revealed to be a fictional drama, rather than the actual videoblog of an actual 16 year-old girl, viewers happily carried on conversing online with the character in full knowledge that she wasn’t real and that their comments were actually being answered by the show’s two male writer/producers.)

Despite their similar approaches, the programmes have fared very differently. KateModern saw 3 million hits in its first three weeks and has amassed what looks – if you can decipher the text speak – like a genuine fanbase. The Joneses have fared significantly less well, with viewer figures for each episode rarely exceeding 1,000, a Facebook fanbase of 368 people, and just 136 followers on Twitter.

This may be because KateModern is firmly embedded among its target audience of teenage Bebo users, while the Joneses have to compete for attention in the wilds of YouTube. And while dramas tend to unify audiences, comedies are divisive; different people find different things funny. I’m also not sure that the Ford logo looming over Where Are The Joneses? does it any favours: what discerning comedy enthusiast wants to feel like they’re watching an extended advert?

But it’s early days for ‘television 2.0’, and the makers of Where Are The Joneses and KateModern are charting a course that will deliver valuable lessons in how to keep audiences entertained in a fragmented, multi-platform world. Whether Ford will see any sales from its (surely considerable) investment is a different matter.

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