Hashtags in Television: Occasionally Intrusive, Ultimately Inevitable

Hashtags are all over television today, but some programs are using them better than others | Image: NBC UniversalHashtags are all over television today, but some programs are using them better than others | Image: NBC Universal
by Tim Backes

by Tim Backes, Editor

People are more connected to their devices today than ever before. Smartphone and tablet usage has skyrocketed over the past several years, with people using these devices most often to browse the web and check their social media.

With the use of these devices constantly growing, so too has the number of people who use multiple devices at once.

One recent survey from Google reveals that approximately 77 percent of the time viewers are watching television, they’re doing so with an additional device nearby. Additionally, 42 percent of people using multiple screens are doing so for social networking purposes.

While the report reveals that 78 percentage of multiscreen usage is multitasking, the other 22 percent is complementary, with the use of both screens simultaneously supposedly adding to the experience.

Clearly, television shows no longer have the full attention of most of their viewers. This means to truly engage their audiences, they need to be able to hit them on multiple screens at once. Hence, the rise of the hashtag in television shows.

It’s a solid strategy by the marketing teams for these shows. People are naturally inclined to want to discuss what happened on their favorite television shows. With the immediacy provided by the internet, those conversations are no longer happening next to the water cooler the next day. Instead, strategically used hashtags help to direct the conversation online.

The concern that arises when these brands are trying so hard to control the conversations about their shows is whether they are turning viewers off by being overly promotional.

When onscreen hashtags are bad, they’re really bad

There is some risk that comes with the decision to heavily feature hashtags during television shows.

For one, not everyone watching the show actively uses Twitter, or cares about using Twitter to participate in a conversation about the show.

For another, depending on the type of program and the way the hashtag is used, a hashtag suddenly showing up on television could instantly take the viewer out of the moment. Imagine, for example, if a #WillTheyOrWontThey hashtag showed up on screen in a moment of sexual tension between Jim and Pam in The Office, for example. And can you imagine what onscreen hashtags would have looked like in Seinfeld?

Just a few quick examples of overly obtrusive/poor hashtag usage:

  • Survivor regularly overlays hashtags on top of what’s being presented to the viewer. A contestant says something witty/stupid? Instant Example of an onscreen hashtag in CBS’s

    Example of an onscreen hashtag in CBS’s Survivor.

    Survivor.hashtag. A player gets voted off rather unexpectedly? #blindside.

  • Fans of WWE constantly gripe about the way the company pushes hashtags. And really, WWE programs use hashtags intelligently, but push them far too hard. Announcers regularly take time out of the broadcast to announce which of their hashtags are trending.
  • Perhaps the most infamous example of bad hashtag use: during a particularly pivotal moment of Pretty Little Liars on ABC Family, the show used the onscreen hashtag #FitzFindsOut.
  • One hashtag in USA’s TV show Suits even gives viewers a discussion prompt question (Have you ever lied to your boss?), which instantly serves to distract the viewer from the program.

All that being said, there are certain situations in which hashtag use can be handled with more tact and actually add some value to the program.

Any type of program can advertise hashtags online without nearly as big of a risk of annoying their viewers simply by choosing to add a “join the discussion” message during the commercial break or during the show’s end credits.

There are also certain types of programs that lend themselves more to the use of onscreen hashtags than others.

For example, a lot of live broadcasts (sports, news programs, political debates) benefit greatly from the use of hashtags, because people are interested in talking about them while they are happening. Hashtags in debate and news programs in particular are great for getting instant reactions from people who are watching from home, or for getting questions to ask the experts on camera.

In these situations, the use of onscreen hashtags can add an additional element to the program that actually benefits the viewer, giving more opportunities for interactivity.

The previous examples only really benefit the brands themselves—they don’t give any extra value to the person watching the program. All they are is another way the program is trying to get the viewer to give it their attention without giving anything back to the viewer in return.

User discretion advised

This hashtag in Suits completely removes the viewer's mindset from the show.

The discussion question accompanying this hashtag in Suits completely removes the viewer’s mindset from the show.

At this point, onscreen hashtags aren’t going anywhere. What’s going to be interesting is how the way brands use them during television programs continues to evolve.

The few shows we listed as “bad” examples of onscreen hashtag use obviously use them in that way for a reason — they have probably found they get a lot of extra engagement online.

But engagement isn’t the end all, be all of marketing. Providing a quality, valuable product is always going to be the single most important element of any marketing campaign.

My feeling is this: why should any television program risk letting its marketing get in the way of its product? If there’s even the chance that people are going to get turned off by the use of onscreen hashtags during a broadcast, figure out a way to use the hashtags so at the very least they don’t have a negative impact on the viewer experience.

Because of the rise in multiple screen usage and online connectivity, more people than ever before are eager to jump into the discussion of their favorite TV programs right away. But it’s also important to note that with people spending more time online, they’re also becoming savvier in terms of knowing when brands are trying too hard to push their marketing tactics on them.

It’s a fine line to walk, and with hashtags and television still a relatively new combination, it’s one that many programs and brands are going to have to work on.

Tim Backes is an editor and co-founder of NovaCritic.