Ever since JFK, aided by the first nationally televised debate, won the 1960 U.S. presidential election over rival Richard Nixon, television has owned the political discourse. The revenue bonanza from each election season is proof enough that no other medium can compete with TV when it comes to political messaging.
Yet, television itself has become embattled as of late. A measurable portion of the $66B television ad spend is shifting slowly but surely to web and mobile platforms; distribution models are changing and eroding television's primacy as the go-to medium for premium video content, while time-shifted viewing and cord-cutting are changing the way in which the audience consumes content. Although this evolution has made content more easily available to the consuming public, it has been like 'death from a thousand cuts' to the traditional television industry.
So, what's a challenged television network to do? What audience engagement strategies will lock dollars in and which technologies will keep them ahead of the curve?
Taking our cues from recent history, we can see that political cycles are shaped by the communication technology of the day. Barack Obama's 2008 and 2012 victories were aided by his campaign's highly successful use of social media. Although these days some say that Twitter and Facebook are "old hat" in the political arena, they now form a solid part of every political campaign, while the emerging user-generated content technologies like Periscope, Meerkat and Snapchat will also impact the political discourse and political wallets during this election.
However, for the TV networks themselves, there is a new audience engagement strategy sweeping the country that connects the TV viewer directly with the conversation in the studio and the debate on-screen. It's called Participation TV.
During the October 13th Democratic Debate on CNN, the iPowow Participation TV platform was used as the second-by-second engagement bridge between 183,000 Facebook users and the live CNN studio. Stop for a second and take another look at that number of 183,000 viewers, all physically and emotionally engaging simultaneously with a TV show. That is a first for television and a political milestone. Throughout the on-air debate CNN, Facebook and iPowow enabled the audience to interact second-by-second with snap polls and questions such as "Who is winning the debate on foreign policy?" and "Who is winning the debate on economic issues?"
While the viewers were participating live in unfolding TV debate and creating discussion content for CNN, the results were also generating news stories throughout the media landscape from MSNBC, Salon.com, Gawker, Reddit and more. The heated conversation around the audience engagement results rolled-on in the political discourse for days after the event.
The Republican primary debate on CNBC served as another milestone in real-time audience engagement for Participation TV in a political debate. During the October 28th debate, there were over 40 snap polls and questions launched from the platform in sync with CNBC's debate coverage. Audience engagement increased throughout the night thanks to promotion from multiple on-air graphics, verbal calls to action from the TV moderators, strong referrals from social media and links to the iPowow Participation TV platform on CNBC's homepage.
Donald Trump emerged as the voter's favorite of the night by winning every poll that asked users "Who is winning the debate?" Within the show, CNBC also took the opportunity to ask viewers to weigh in on controversial topics such as the legalization of marijuana, the right to conceal weapons, the economy, immigration and healthcare. Questions such as "Should employees be allowed to bring their guns to work?" revealed that 74 percent of the viewers said "YES", creating further news stories for CNBC.
What's even better is that the viewers of the debate entered their Political Affiliation, Gender, and Age before participating. This allowed a second-by-second breakdown of all the poll results by demographic, giving CNBC valuable insights about their audience and created strong talking points for CNBC's post-debate coverage.
A great example on a regional TV level, Jacksonville broadcaster WJXT has been using the Participation TV platform to engage the audience second-by-second with the discussion in the TV studio during the mayoral elections.
As CEO of iPowow, I'm proud to be on the forefront of Participation TV as we head towards this election. Multiple national and local TV networks in the US and internationally use our audience engagement and real-time viewer analytics platform during on-air coverage of political issues and during political debates, to include, inform and engage their viewers second-by-second. Audience engagement is inevitable, it's the future of TV and it's here now.
Beyond the highly successful examples of audience engagement by broadcasters who are using tools like iPowow in their political coverage, there are a number of reasons why Participation TV is becoming a significant force in the upcoming general elections:
The audience is craving it
Viewers want to interact with content. There is a level of expectation from television audiences that they be able to lean in and interact with programming. With 85 percent of television viewers, according to Nielsen, watching with a mobile device in their hand, asking the audience to participate is only a simple broadcast 'call-to-action' away.
It provides a competitive edge
As a competitive tool, Participation TV is adding a new element to TV broadcasters' and News Networks' desire to differentiate themselves from the rest of programming. In particular, national and local TV news programs are now expected to continually develop their engagement strategies to meet the expectations of an audience who have an ever-present source of free and abundant online news at their fingertips.
The technology is mature
The technology platform that drives the audience participation for the CNN and CNBC political debates has been rolling-out across dozens of TV News, Live Sports and Entertainment shows for five years. In the brutally competitive landscape of live TV, where moment-by-moment decisions affect a program's outcomes, a robust and reliable technology, such as the iPowow Participation TV platform, handles millions of votes per second securely and simultaneously, while ensuring producers and advertisers engage their viewers in the story unfolding on-screen.
It brings in new audience data
A mass TV audience participating in snap polls, ranking, rating and dial tests all in real time, is generating massive amounts of actionable audience data. For decades, TV networks have used traditional metrics. Now with the advent of Participation TV, television producers, pollsters, analysts and brands can extract better data, targeting everything from physical location and interests to income, political preferences and shopping habits.
The "air gap" between the linear television content and the digital data in the viewer's mobile device is now being bridged. The deep audience insights that emerge from this second-by-second engagement bridge, are being used by the TV networks, Ad agencies and Pollsters to optimize messaging, programming and political ad spend.
And finally... it's good for democracy
Public participation is the beating heart of a democracy. Without people making choices about how they are governed the governing itself becomes arbitrary and unfair. Any opportunity to increase participation, to check the pulse of the public, is good for democracy and improves society as a whole. As the most inclusive real-time medium on the planet, Participation TV is enabling TV networks to engage the audience in the political discourse second-by-second and can only serve the greater public interest.