In the last several years, linear programming has struggled to maintain its entertainment stronghold, as SVOD, streaming and other online platforms capture the attention and favor of younger viewers. Lesser emphasis on the nuclear family, longer workdays, deeper internet penetration and aggressive prime-time competition have all contributed to the shift. To survive in this new landscape, linear programs and networks are forced to find increasingly innovative ways to engage digital audiences.
Though it’s only a year old, USA Network’s fictional show Mr. Robot is making waves in this arena. The show, directed by Sam Esmail, follows a young cyber-security programmer named Elliot who is disrupting the status-quo. Much like Iain Softley did in the movie Hackers—Esmail creates the feeling that outcasts don’t have to subject to the system, and can even have some control over it. Mr. Robot isn’t just controlling the system… it’s entirely disrupting it.
Through a number of well-executed non-linear content element, Mr. Robot has proven that linear programming, non-linear content, and social media can not only coexist, but efficiently come together to create a cross-platform, but linear-driven, engagement strategy for a digitally savvy audience.
The Mr. Robot content occurring outside the normal linear environment doesn’t merely promote the show to drive tune-in or share behind the scenes content, as has been done countless times before. Esmail uses this content as an extension of the show itself, shifting character development and adding depth to the plot.
On July 20th, Esmail brought viewers inside Elliot’s world, debuting a 15-minute virtual reality experience in partnership with Here Be Dragons. This immersive experience gave viewers a deeper look inside Elliot’s troubled mind, allowing them to sit in on memories and experiences that weren’t shown on linear television. It was not merely adjacent or complementary content, but additive to the experiencing, giving viewers a deeper connection to and understanding of the show’s characters and plot.
The experience was promoted for a week before it’s release on VR smartphone app Within, and because it was only available to view for one hour, Esmail was able to create a buzzworthy “almost-live” moment for fans of the show.
But this strategy had another interesting effect: In order to view the experience within the one-hour time limit, viewers had to download the app ahead of time. This created a highly measurable and attributable demonstration of digital engagement that linear hasn’t always been able to achieve. (It’s worth noting that Nielsen’s new Social Content Ratings may help with this moving forward).
But the 15-minute VR short wasn’t the only non-linear experience MR. Robot fans have enjoyed in the run-up to the season premier. Two days before the premier, on July 10th, the show’s actors participated in a Facebook Live Q&A, answering questions about the show and drumming up excitement for the new season. The use of Facebook’s Live feature would have been forward-thinking enough, Mr. Robot was about to shake things up again.
In the midst of this Q&A, Mr. Robot “took control” of the stream, releasing the first part of the season two premiere. For a short period of time, the one-hour episode was live on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and YouTube, allowing the most engaged followers to watch it before its official release.
Once again, by embodying Elliot’s disruptive nature in their content and engagement strategy, Esmail and his team were able to connect linear and social, creating a time-sensitive moment that created deep engagement for loyal viewers.
These strategies are successful, in part, because the show’s target audience is young. They’re less likely to watch shows on linear television, and more likely to stream them; the ratings proved it. Within the first three days of the premiere, the show received a total of 2.25 million viewers, which is a 116% increase on the live viewership, capturing the most important age group: 18-to-49 year olds.
Linear programing is far from dying, but it cannot stay siloed if it wants to continue to capture these young digital-first audiences. Mr. Robot’s digital strategy has proven that non-linear tools and platforms—VR, AR, live streaming, social media and more—present a huge opportunity to create deeper cross-platform engagement with digital TV-watching audience. These tools are integral, not optional, elements of a modern linear content strategy, and if more linear players leverage these tools to create additive extensions of the plots, characters and themes they present on television, we could be seeing a lot more disruption in this system soon.