Social Networks’ Invisible Hand in TV’s Meteoric Rise

That’s right. TV can thank social networks for its meteoric rise. Its not a new observation that TV is in its golden age.” There is more TV content than there ever was before. Research shows that in 2015, 409 scripted TV shows aired on broadcast television (a 94% increase since 2009.) Most critics attribute this increase to the democratization of content through large players like Netflix and HBO Go. Their theory is — TV can be accessed more easily through a number of new mediums so more viewers can watch it. While I agree with that, I believe there are more influential elements at play.

The Case for Frequency: Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat thrive because they encourage consumers to post content on a daily basis. Gone are the days where consumers spend time waiting to create content on a weekly or monthly basis. Frequent content is considered better content. As a result, we have come to expect this same frequency in what we consume. The average consumer now prefers 45–60 minutes of content frequently, rather than 90+ minutes of content infrequently. And the frequency engenders more addiction — a strong parallel to “following” our favorite content producers on Instagram or Snapchat.

Stronger Word of Mouth Dynamics: Before the rise of social networks, word of mouth depended on physically seeing someone. All types of content benefitted from strong word of mouth dynamics. For example, if you watched a great TV show or a great movie you’d be sure to tell a friend in school or a colleague in the workplace. Today, social networks exponentially increase word of mouth dynamics. You don’t have to wait to tell someone in person — you can tell them through the three social media channels they follow you on! And even better, it is no longer a 1–1 exchange, but a 1-to-many exchange. So why is this better for TV than for movies? The average person sees five movies a year. Those are five opportunities to highly recommend a movie to your friends and family through social media. TV is different. We watch more TV a month than movies a year — which gives more ample opportunities to talk about it.

Proximity to the Consumer: Prior to social networks, both movie and tv writers had limited exposure to what consumer’s wanted. They could set up focus groups, analyze which movies performed better in the box office, or debate which actors and actresses had a larger fan base. While helpful, they had little to no access to the consumer. Today, not only do we have shorter attention spans, but our opportunity cost for accessing different content is drastically lower. But social media has helped TV writers and networks access the consumer. Shonda Rhimes does a particularly good job with this through live-tweeting her shows and encouraging her actors to have a strong social media presence. This creates unconventional closeness to the consumer, which incentivizes them to come back again and again.

Originally published at on October 25, 2016.

GP @CRV, Alum @HarvardHBS @Stanford. I like a bagel with attitude.

GP @CRV, Alum @HarvardHBS @Stanford. I like a bagel with attitude.