There's Still Appointment Television, But The Appointment Is '@midnight'
Earlier this week, @midnight (pronounced "at midnight," for the uninitiated) was renewed by Comedy Central, where it airs Monday through Thursday (at ... uh ... midnight), for a generous 40-week third season that will extend the show's run all the way through 2016. It was great news for late-night Twitter users who are eager to be part of the world's biggest online roast and flock to their screens every night — when the show is actually on, just like the olden days — to play along at home and online.
@midnight is a kind of Frankenstein's monster of television in that it's taken cues and structure beats from a lot of familiar formats and stitched them into something new. On the surface, it's a game show, but only marginally more seriously than something like the improv competition Whose Line Is It Anyway? The points on @midnight are more structured and kind of matter, but the only contestants are comedians and other industry folk, and the prize at the end is "winning the Internet." It's also an Internet news show, a funny rundown show reminiscent of E!'s The Soup, and even the part of a talk show where guests promote their projects. But first and foremost, it's a comedy show, whose bread and butter is laughing both with and at the world, the Internet and the contestants. As such, despite its seemingly simplistic style and format, @midnightis unlike anything else on TV — not just fiercely loved, but best watched (and played) in real time.
Appointment television used to exist almost by definition, when there was only the one way and one time to watch a show. But as delivery mechanisms and viewing habits change, that's no longer the case. Shows try harder and harder to get viewers' attention, and for lots of those shows, it involves knocking themselves out trying to make a social media presence happen. Shows have Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, prominent stars or producers live-tweeting episodes and, perhaps most abundantly, hashtags superimposed onto a corner of their programming, encouraging viewers to "Join the Discussion" or somehow interact with the show.
Sometimes it works to make live viewing seem more vibrant — think of the weekly conversations that surround Scandal. But just as often, it emphatically doesn't. Survivor, for instance, labors to persuade its viewers to engage in each scene of the show on command, using a different hashtag — #rewardchallenge, #immunitychallenge, #hiddenimmunityidol, #tribalcouncil — as if producers have no idea how Twitter works at all. The whole point of hashtags is to build a sense of everyone talking about the same thing, which isn't going to happen with a scattered approach like that. Others go for more interactivity, like NBC's The Voice and ABC's Dancing with the Stars, which in some cases allow hashtag-driven voting.
But no show has integrated and appropriated platforms of social media (not just Twitter, but Vine, and Instagram as well) to create a truly interactive — and, yes, "appointment" — experience quite the way @midnight has.
@midnight doesn't build social media around itself as a supplement; it's part of the basic structure. Its contestants make fun of Internet memes and trending topics, and viewers are asked to do the same. Take the regular feature Hashtag Wars, for example. Hashtag games have existed since Twitter first launched, and @midnightunsurprisingly has constructed a ritual for its viewers around them. The show announces a hashtag on Twitter 30 minutes before the airtime, both so that followers can participate in real time and as a canny reminder to watch. Several of the show's favorites are retweeted, and one lucky "winner" is featured on the next day's episode. For example, if the hashtag for the evening is #ComicConAilments, you might get something like this.
Or for #ScientificTVShows, you might get this.
@midnightruns exceptionally good hashtag games, but that's just the beginning. Because online interaction is so much a part of the show's DNA, incorporating new platforms comes naturally. That means the show can add things without coming off like it's trying too hard, which is a persistent problem when social media features are grafted onto shows as an afterthought. Features like Loop Friday (a Vine feature) and PlotTwistagram (a collaborative storytelling goof) are genuinely innovative, and the #PointsMe challenge, in which viewers are encouraged to tag their Twitter jokes with #PointsMe for a chance of earning a coveted spot on the show as a contestant, offer viewers who are armchair comics a chance at what they reallywant. They've already featured one such winner, Chris Cubas from Austin, and the results were phenomenally funny (and, like the show, Not Safe For Work).
@midnight is exploring how to be current, and viewers are responding. Last year it topped Comedy Central behemoth The Daily Show in the highly coveted demographics of people 18 to 24 and males 18 to 34. It even earned a 2014 Emmy nomination for Outstanding Interactive Program. And it's hitting those marks not only because it's inventive, but because it's a comedy show that's really funny.
Not every joke lands, but there are so many that the misfires don't seem so important. The humor ranges from crude to silly to intellectual and grows out of the organic sense that it would be fun to invite these particular people over to watch TV with you, led by the show's host, Chris Hardwick. Hardwick is the ubiquitous Nerdist (creator of the Nerdist podcast, among other things), and his particular brand of banter and geek cred works for the format. He's a participant, but he's also a committed promoter of a wide variety of diverse comedy voices — another way in which the show seems to have fit itself well to the moment.
@midnight seems almost too simplistic to work, but it does. And because of the way it's been built, it's capable of evolving alongside the rapidly changing formats that flummox so many parts of traditional broadcast media. In many ways, being of the moment is what @midnight does best. And now it has until at least the end of 2016 to do it.
Jessica Daniels can be found on Twitter @chicksafire, hoping for some points.
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