Executives are frequently encouraged to adopt a multichannel approach to business because, they’re told, doing so will produce a result that’s greater than the sum of its parts. but is this really the case?

If any industry can prove that you can put two channels together in interesting ways and produce powerful results, it’s the television industry, which is increasingly finding a variety of ways to embrace an ever-social internet.

Social media as a TV app

Given the popularity of the internet, it’s not surprising that most television programs have associated online components. These often include websites, as well as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube accounts.

In most cases, these components are designed to provide varying degrees of interactivity. A website for a television program, for instance, might have a blog that gives viewers additional content, and an ability to comment. MTV provides such blogs for many of its shows.

In other cases, an entire social network might be developed around a television program. The American Idol website features such a social network, which gives Idol fans the ability to create their own blogs and fan groups, post personal photos, and chat with other viewers via message boards, some of which have accumulated hundreds of thousands of posts.

Other popular tools for creating opportunities for interaction around television shows online include branded games, Facebook applications, content aggregators, viral videos, mobile features, and contests.

Given the number of tools available to players in the television industry, and the ways in which these tools can be applied, the social web sort of like a television app: before, during and after consuming programming on the small screen, there are interactive components that give viewers the opportunity to extend the consumption on even smaller screens – those of their computers and mobile devices.

Twitter TV

For some programming, networks are actually finding an opportunity to bring social media into the show.

Cable news network CNN, for instance, has been doing this for several years now. User-generated content from the internet is incorporated by CNN in various ways:

  • Numerous CNN hosts, including Anderson Cooper and Don Lemon, make time to read opinionated tweets to their audiences.
  • CNN’s Jack Cafferty invites cnn.com readers to comment on the day’s topics, and reads the opinions he finds most interesting to the Situation Room’s television viewers.
  • CNN operates a platform called iReport, which allows citizen journalists to upload their own stories, photos and videos. The most newsworthy are verified by CNN, and are featured on-air.

In many instances, this type of integration may not seem all that substantive, but not all social media-television integration has to subtle.

In some cases, social media is the program. Take, for instance, the popular Comedy Central show tosh.0. Little more than a television-based aggregator of funny and shocking viral videos, according to the Los Angeles Times, “Tosh.0′ has done so well that it has been attracting more men in the coveted 18- to 34-year-old demographic as the most successful comedy on NBC, ‘The Office.’”

Perhaps an even more powerful example of how social media can serve as the foundation for television programming is the CBS sitcom $h*! My Dad Says.

Starring William Shatner, $h*! My Dad Says is based on a Twitter feed created by Justin Halpern, who started tweeting things his dad would say after moving back home at the age of 29.

His Twitter account acquired a large following, and before long he signed a book deal and a television deal with Warner Bros., demonstrating that the internet, itself a hub for pop culture, can be a viable source for new content and programming.

Talent has its own brand

While social media is sparking new opportunities for viewers and aspiring content creators, it’s also a channel that is doing big things for existing television personalities.

When Conan O’Brien found himself out of work following his departure from NBC’s Tonight Show, he turned to the internet, and more specifically, Twitter. In a matter of hours, he had more than a quarter of a million followers, and the “I’m With Coco” movement had begun.

In the end, O’Brien’s online popularity helped him seal a lucrative deal with cable network TBS, one that reportedly gave O’Brien just about everything he asked for, as well as an eight-figure pay day up front in addition to an ownership stake in the show. In return, TBS has a true partner who brought with him an audience and a lot of goodwill.

If O’Brien’s TBS deal demonstrates one thing, it’s this: today, top talent can build a brand using social media.

On the web, actors and media personalities can “own” their fans, build their own properties and exert almost unlimited control over their creations.

In other words, arguably the most powerful asset an individual like Conan O’Brien have is a strong internet presence, and with one, Hollywood executives will increasingly have to recognize that the talent – not the network or the programming – often is the brand. And that can be a good thing for television networks too.

Social media as 21st century water cooler

While terrestrial and cable television networks are tapping into social media through their own platforms, integrating social media into their programming, and coming to recognize the benefits of talent-as-the-brand, social media has also fast become a virtual “water cooler” for viewers looking to voice opinions about the shows they love – and hate.

From Facebook to Twitter, television talk is a daily occurrence. Whether it’s a shocking American Idol elimination, or the season finale of a popular series, social media provides an outlet for viewers to express their opinions about the shows they’re watching.

During the 2011 Super Bowl, for instance, Twitter reported more than 4,000 Super Bowl-related tweets per second!

According to a recent study by digital marketing firm Digital Clarity, which polled 1,300 mobile internet users under the age of 25, 80% of young, mobile-savvy youth in the U.K. are using the internet and mobile internet to comment on television programming while they’re watching it.

A similar study conducted by Nielsen and Yahoo in the United States found a similar trend.

Although a 2010 study by social media monitoring firm Viralheat found that online buzz isn’t always correlated with ratings, many in the industry believe there is a link. But even if such a link can’t yet be firmly established, one thing is certain: digital chatter is providing television executives with new insights into what viewers think about their programs.

Sometimes, television networks learn that their viewers may be more passionate about their programming than previously thought. In 2007, for instance, fans of the ABC series Jericho organized a campaign online which resulted in 40,000 pounds of peanuts being sent to ABC executives. The message (“Don’t cancel our show!”) was heard, and the show was given a second chance.

Naturally, television executives aren’t looking at social media as a one-way street. The possibility of influencing the digital chatter is alluring, and there are efforts to do just that. Cable network A&E, for example, purchased a Twitter Promoted Trend to promote the debut of a new show called Breakout Kings.

But paid media is arguably not nearly as effective as earned media in the realm of social media if FOX’s hit show Glee is any indication. It’s one of the most “tweeted-about” shows on Twitter due in large part to the efforts of its social media-savvy cast, which actually engages with fans via Twitter during the show.

As Twitter CEO Dick Costolo told an audience during a discussion at CES 2011, “People feel like they have to watch the show while it’s going on because the community is tweeting about the show and the characters are tweeting as the show’s happening…”

A similar dynamic was created earlier this year by Howard Stern. Ratings for an HBO broadcast of his movie Private Parts, now more than a decade old, were far higher than anticipated after Stern tweeted live commentary during the broadcast.

The most interesting thing about Glee’s social media popularity, and the one-time uplift HBO experienced with Stern, is that this kind of behind-the-scenes social media interaction doesn’t require that social media be incorporated into the programming itself.

The talent, by making itself accessible to the public, is simply adding a new dimension to the viewing experience – one that clearly interests many viewers.

The Past is the Future

The powerful relationship that has developed between television and social media is one of the best examples of how channels can interact in a multi-faceted, multi-dimensional and symbiotic fashion, enhancing the experiences in both channels while at the same time creating new experiences not possible with either alone.

Before the advent of the internet and social media, television content was broadcast in one direction, but that merely created the impression that television was not an inherently social channel.

In one direction, television programming has always served as a source of millions of conversations amongst individuals. In the other direction, television programming has always reflected what’s on society’s mind, ranging from its worst fears to its best dreams.  

Social media is a channel that can be monitored and participated in, and integrated with other channels. Today, combing television and social media changes the nature and scope of the conversations television produces, how television programming itself is developed, and how those who participate in it market themselves.

Other industries can evolve in similarly interesting ways by identifying complimentary channels and finding ways to bring them together.

This article was originally published in the third issue of Econsultancy’s JUMP Magazine. Click here to download a free copy. For more information about the JUMP event on 12 October 2011 and to book your place, please visit http://cometojump.com.