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TV industry looks for a game plan on using Twitter

Many stars and show creators are promoting their series on the messaging service. But giving platoons of highly opinionated actors and writers a filter-less forum can have its drawbacks.

October 16, 2009|Scott Collins

Twitter has roughly 6 million users, and probably upward of 99% of their tweets attract absolutely zero attention. But the rules are a little different for the people who make TV shows, as Hart Hanson, creator and executive producer of Fox's forensic comedy-drama "Bones," learned earlier this month.

Hanson, an active Twitterer known for his gently ironic on-set updates and affectionate exchanges with the show's hard-core fans, informed readers that his show had shut down production. "Damn swine flu!" he added.

Later, he admitted that he did not really know if anyone on his set had the H1N1 virus, although star David Boreanaz was out sick. But by then the tale was in full gallop of how "Bones" was felled by the dreaded swine flu. "Glibness and irony, probably not the best idea for Twittering," a chastened Hanson said in a later interview.

The entire entertainment business is struggling with the best way to use Twitter, the micro-blogging service founded in 2006 that has been embraced by many celebrities as a way to pitch themselves and their projects. And TV is in many respects on the front lines, since the talent has fresh episodes of shows to promote every week.

The acceptance of the format goes well beyond Ashton Kutcher -- who, by the way, now has nearly 4 million Twitter followers. Take, for example, Lea Michele, the young star of Fox's "Glee," who tweeted about the show's mall tour this past summer. Tracy Morgan, of NBC's "30 Rock," has quickly drawn a Twitter crowd this month with baffling and often-ribald posts.

Then there are tweeting producers, such as Carlton Cuse of ABC's "Lost" and Bill Prady of CBS' "The Big Bang Theory."

But as the Hanson case illustrates, there's a danger in giving platoons of highly opinionated actors and writers a filter-less forum where even their half-formed thoughts can be seen instantly by millions.

Casting news that networks would rather manage themselves has been leaked via Twitter. Ryan Seacrest was the one who broke the news that his friend, former NBC executive Ben Silverman, was exiting the network. When NBC suddenly axed its cop drama "Southland" recently, "Sons of Anarchy" writer-producer Kurt Sutter thundered that network czar Jeff Zucker was a "rudderless buffoon." One network PR person described Twitter and other forms of social media generally as "a pain."

"People have these conversational tones on Twitter," said Jeremiah Owyang, a Web strategist and partner at the Altimeter Group. "The downside is, people forget that there's a publishing aspect."

Many network officials see the risk but still sing the praises of social media as marketing and PR tools, at least for now.

"As a PR professional, I totally believe the pros outweigh the cons," CBS media-relations chief Chris Ender said of Twitter. "It creates a deeper connection with your audience. And the audience is so fragmented that you need to use multiple forms of communication."

When Paul McCartney was a guest on David Letterman's show this summer, fans began tweeting as his band set up for a rooftop performance. The flurry of reports built buzz for that night's show and helped ratings, Ender said.

CBS gives its talent no clear rules about tweeting, he added, so he sees a major gaffe as inevitable. "You know it's going to happen," he said.

For fans, Twitter has become a major gathering place and perhaps the only environment in which they can have some personal contact with the people who write and star in their favorite shows.

"Bones" fans, for example, have created an intense, vocal and highly partisan community on Twitter, all centered around their esteem for the show and for Hanson.

"The advantage is instant access to someone I'd never have personal access to otherwise," Rosalyn H. Marhatta, one of the most active "Bones" fans online, wrote in an e-mail. "If I want to see something on the show, if I love something or don't love it, Hart Hanson listens. And many times he responds."

And sometimes he wishes he hadn't. Hanson said he was encouraged to join Twitter by his friend, actor Stephen Fry, who has more than 800,000 followers. Fry counseled him to be provocative on Twitter.

"Anything I can do to give the show some profile, I'll do," Hanson said. "But it's quite a chore. . . . I'm not always sure I should have done it now."

And then, in a reference to his swine-flu gaffe, he added with a rueful chuckle: "Especially today."


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