These days, as more people watch television with a phone in hand or a computer in lap, it is de rigueur for a network to have a Twitter hashtag on the screen. Television producers and stars — at least the ones with thick skins — appreciate the instant feedback, and now they are figuring out ways to incorporate it into their shows, thereby completing the feedback loop.
Witness American Idol, which on Wednesday will start to use Twitter to take instant polls of the audience.
Graphics on this Fox singing competition will include questions like "Do you agree with the judges tonight?" and two hashtags (words or phrases preceded by a # symbol, making the comment easy to find) with differing answers. Viewers with Twitter accounts, if they want to participate, will post a comment with one of the two hashtags, and the network and its production partner, FremantleMedia, will update the graphic almost instantly as the results come in. They say it will look like an online tug of war.
For Idol, which pioneered viewer participation more than a decade ago with toll-free phone numbers for voting on singers, the Twitter-powered "fan meter" is another way to excite viewers — particularly those who watch live and who tend to be most valuable to Fox and its advertisers.
While millions of people record the show and will see the Twitter results when they watch it later, "part of the objective is to say, 'The best possible experience is when you watch it live,'" said David Wertheimer, the president for digital for Fox Broadcasting.
''Ultimately, you can see how this dynamic experience could potentially influence the show in real time."
Producers plan to have the "fan meter" feature appear more often once Idol, now in its taped audition episodes, begins its live performance episodes this month. They say it will be repeated in all four time zones in the continental United States. (Maybe Fox will discover that the judge Mariah Carey is more popular in the East, while Nicki Minaj is more popular out West.)
The connection to Twitter, which has a disproportionately large following of users under 50, comes at a time when the audience for Idol is aging, just as the 11-year-old show itself is. Its viewers' median age so far this season is 45, down from 49 last year, but up from 32 its very first year. Most shows go through a similar aging process, but the producers want to do whatever they can to stem further losses among younger viewers.
What tends to work best is true interactivity — "talking with" the audience, instead of "talking to," said Mark Ghuneim, a co-founder of Trendrr, a company that tracks online chatter about television shows. MSNBC's Daily Rundown, for instance, has a daily trivia question, with a prize (a mention on the newscast) for the first person to submit the correct answer via Twitter. Last month CBS' Hawaii Five-o let viewers choose the ending of an episode by commenting on Twitter and voting on CBS.com.
''One of the things we've learned is that the audience loves to affect the show in some meaningful way," said Fred Graver, Twitter's head of television, who praised Idol for what the series is doing with the "fan meter."
"The audience gets to not only choose the winner, but there are tons of side bets they can participate in via Twitter along the way that add dimension to the entire experience." That's also how Fox and FremantleMedia talk about Idol — as an "interactive experience." While virtually all of the revenue for the show comes from television, the Internet is a billboard and a way to make watching at home more fun.