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A first for TV: Cover Me Canada reinvents reality show voting with innovative social approach

By: Paul McGrath, Interactive Producer, CBC, Jan 25, 2010

In the fall of 2011, Cover Me Canada became the first prime time reality elimination show to use "social voting".

The show, which aired on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation from September to November 2011, combined the social activity of its fans to determine the outcome.

You've likely heard about how The Voice integrated social feedback from the audience in its broadcast, and how X-Factor used Twitter's 'direct messaging' feature as a way for fans to vote, but Cover Me Canada was the first show to incorporate Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, to directly influence the show itself.

To find out what motivated this innovative approach to voting in the show, and how it worked, we talked with Tessa Sproule, the director of interactive content for commissioned, studio, scripted and unscripted programming at the CBC.

What's the background? How did this approach come to be?
When the concept for the format was first pitched, some two years ago, it had a standard phone, text, web vote approach.

But the premise of the show demanded a different treatment.

Given how digital distribution and promotion have turned the music industry on its head - resulting in new stars like Justin Beiber and new distribution models like iTunes - we knew we had to reflect the way people find out about and consume music in today's digital world.

We had to incorporate social media into the format - because social media is so crucial to success in the music industry today.

So we worked with a great social game production company called OverInteractive Media in Vancouver to create a "social vote" app. It tracked social activity surrounding the show and the competitors, both on and off the stage.

The app isn't live anymore, but you can poke around the archived content.

Download Flash Player to view this content.

How did it work?
Every week we called on the fans to tweet, watch and discuss their favourite competitors. The more a fan participated, the more they could influence the outcome of the show.

Their activity was tracked and ultimately the competitor with the most engaged fan base won the competition - sort of like the way it is for musicians today.

The total social vote activity for Cover Me Canada exceeded 2.9 million interactions. This included a bunch of online activity: votes, tweets, comments, video views, shares etc.

And while that sounds like small potatoes when compared to the activity around show like American Idol, and the American X-Factor, remember that Canada's population is 35 million, just a little more than 10 per cent of the U.S.

In Canada, a big audience to a show is in the 1 - 1.5 million viewers range. And we're a country that's very socially-networked, so a social voting approach for Cover Me was the best way to reach the Canadian music fan.


What motivated this approach?
We've been doing elimination/reality shows here for quite a while and we've been experimenting with lots of ways to make the voting element more engaging.

To me, there's not much less enticing than dialing a phone over and over again, or clicking a "vote" button repeatedly over a couple of hours during showtime.

We wanted to engage the audience beyond the broadcast. We didn't want the social activity to spike just during the broadcast.

So we extended the vote window and we built the social activity between broadcasts into the overall storyline of Cover Me.

What we saw was sustained social activity through the week, as well as a nice build of social throughout the run of the series.

What did you learn?
What I found really interesting is that we still saw spikes in the broadcast period - like activity coinciding with pushes from the TV screen - but we also saw spikes outside the broadcast.

For example in some weeks, we asked the competitors to do challenges; simple things, like asking them to come up with a way to build followers to their Twitter handle - we'd give bonus points to whoever got the most new followers.

That drove up activity between the broadcasts - and next time we'd like to integrate those challenges even more into the format so we can really build on the fan engagement between shows. Get the fans to go out and do something; throw a listening party and share pictures of it on Facebook.

The number of people tweeting about Cover Me Canada is shown in red, the blue line represents another CBC hit show. Notice the differences in activity patterns, the blue line spikes every week around the broadcast, the Cover Me Canada activity does not, it sustains between shows.

What I also found really interesting was that the social activity around Cover Me Canada surpassed the activity around other CBC shows that drew twice the audience on TV.

In some cases the activity was more than double the social activity we see around other hit shows.

What's Next?
What we're really looking forward to now, is when we can hit that sweet spot and have both a highly-viewed show and social voting baked into the format.

We're 'd also looking at ways to drive the social activity as close as possible to the broadcast so we can hopefully raise awareness of the show at that critical moment when audiences are making their decisions about what they're watching.

For Cover Me, we closed it the voting window on Fridays at midnight, and then we saw activity plummet until the broadcast started - if some of the research coming from Nielsen and others is right, we want to move that activity to within three hours before the broadcast launch.

Overall, for shows like this, we wanted the activity around voting to be more engaging.

We also wanted the competitors in the show to walk away with something.

So for Cover Me Canada we created Twitter and Facebook profiles for the talent participating in the show. Those that were eliminated from the series still walked away with a new and engaged fanbase to boost their careers. That's something tangible beyond just general awareness from being on TV.

That's an example of something that feels good as the public broadcaster - it's not just numbers for the TV viewing we're after, but a meaningful experience for both the fans and participants in our shows.

April 2012 Update: We applied to have Cover Me Canada nominated for a Gemini Award!
View the submission document here.

Be sure to use Adobe Acrobat Reader in order to view interactive content in the document.