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Can One Man’s Twitter Account Save Survivor‘s Ratings?

Survivor, the long-running CBS (s CBS) series that places a group of contestants in remote locations to compete against the elements (and each other), has had a tough season. While the show still draws more than 10 million viewers per episode, the franchise has seen its viewership gradually drop over the past several years, and is facing some of its worst ratings ever. But Survivor host and producer Jeff Probst hopes he can change that by engaging with the show’s audience on Twitter.

Part of that is due to competition: For the first time ever, Survivor is up against Fox (s NWS) behemoth American Idol, placing it in the solid Number 2 position on Wednesday nights. Both shows are based on competition between contestants, with eliminations happening at the end of the show, so the live viewing component is important to both programs. Still, with such high-profile series going head-to-head on a weekly basis, reality TV fans will frequently choose to DVR one of the shows, or choose not to watch it at all. That’s bad news for Survivor, which has seen its live viewership degrade during the season.

In an effort to reverse that trend, Probst has taken to Twitter to engage with fans during the show. Over the last several weeks, Probst has been live tweeting during the show, providing the second screen equivalent of director’s commentary and answering viewer questions during commercial breaks. The tweets provide more opinion on how the contestants play the game, as well a more behind-the-scenes look at some of the challenges that Survivor puts them through.

In a phone interview, Probst told us he got the idea for live tweeting during Survivor after seeing Howard Stern provide live Twitter commentary during a showing of Private Parts on HBO Zone (s twx) about a month ago. On a whim, Probst said he began offering similar context to Survivor episodes on the social network as a way to help build community around the show.

“Social media is creating a sense of community and a shared experience. You’ve never been able to do that with live TV before,” Probst said. “People used to talk at the water cooler the next day, and that’s the best we’ve been able to do. But now with Twitter, social media and Facebook, we can have a community experience live while it’s happening.”

It seems viewers have begun to take notice: Probst’s follower count has ramped up from about 45,000 followers to nearly 80,000 over the past six weeks, with sharp jumps every Wednesday night. How much of an effect the live tweeting has actually had on Survivor’s ratings remains to be seen; despite his tweeting, ratings over the last several weeks of Survivor actually seem to be slightly down.

Probst admits his ability to impact the ratings is somewhat limited — he doesn’t yet have the kind of follower base that is enjoyed by Jimmy Fallon (3.4 million) or Conan O’Brien (2.8 million) — but he’s hoping his experiment on Twitter will, over the long term, keep viewers tuned in to the live broadcast, as opposed to watching the show on their DVRs.

The big fear for the network is that “people that DVR the show aren’t theoretically watching commercials,” Probst said. But anecdotal evidence from fans tells him that adding commentary on Twitter is changing their behavior. “Now I have people tweeting back to me saying, ‘I used to DVR the show but now I watch live,’ or ‘I’m TiVoing Idol tonight and watching Survivor instead,'” Probst said.

As time goes on and more people notice what Probst is doing, he could have a bigger impact on the overall numbers. Until then, he’s just happy to engage in the conversation: “This makes the audience feel more a part of the show. We’ve been on 11 years and 22 seasons for one reason: We have a loyal audience. Now you can listen to that audience, and let them know you’re listening,” he told us. “The groundwork is being laid for a new way to engage that audience.”

Probst’s live Twitter commentary runs during both the East Coast and West Coast feeds of Survivor, every Wednesday night beginning at 8:00 p.m. Check it out here:

2 Responses to “Can One Man’s Twitter Account Save Survivor‘s Ratings?”

  1. The idea is great in theory…but the problem is that it really ISN’T a conversation so much as Jeff reiterating what’s on screen and posting the same tidbits every single week. Any fan interaction is limited to yes-men; he won’t respond to any valid criticism of the show without resorting to insulting the asker (last week he literally replied to someone by asking them, “Are you high?”).

    I would love nothing more than to have a 15-minute phone chat with the guy. For all my complaints about the show, I love it and have a lot of respect for him. Hook me up, Ryan! :)

    • Ryan Lawler

      I dunno, I kind of dig the irreverence. When someone else criticized him for pimping the show on Twitter, he just said, “Bite me.” Yes, it’s promotional, but it’s also authentic and not totally washed out by corporate parents/sponsors of the show.