NEW YORK: Media brands such as NBC, VH1 and Fox are making greater use of the web to engage and understand their audiences, a trend with knock-on effects for advertising agencies.

NBC allied with Facebook for its recent "Meet the Press" debate between the Republican candidates hoping to run for the US Presidency, airing the event live on the social network and showing users' posts on the corresponding TV broadcast.

Having spent over a year ensuring its team were ready for this tie-up, NBC revealed the debate was streamed 860,000 times on the internet from 8-12 January, and generated over 45,000 comments.

"They are actual viewers, just engaging with you in a new way," Ryan Osborn, senior director of digital media for NBC News, told The Wrap. "They are real-time focus groups."

"Particularly over the last year, we've seen social media grow from just being the latest shiny new toy to being a really powerful tool that is integral to gathering news and telling stories."

Fox News also used Twitter to assess the reaction to its debate among candidates for the Republican nomination for the presidency, and encouraged viewer interaction on the microblog.

Elsewhere, VH1, the entertainment channel, hosted a four hour live stream online during the Critics' Choice movie awards, offering insights from experts like Dana Stevens of Slate magazine and Will Leitch of New York Magazine.

"It is a compelling way to add a new dimension to the second screen," Dan Sacher, vice-president Digital for VH1 and Logo, said. "It makes it even more social than it has been in the past and the field is so wide open that there is a lot to talk about."

The growing habit of watching TV while using the web, and especially social media, has arguably reversed industry attitudes towards the roll of sites like Facebook, according to Greg Artzt, co-founder of General Sentiment, the analytics firm.

"A year and a half ago it was about, how can social media buzz be predictive of Nielsen ratings," he said. "It has taken that leap to where it is more of a central story. It has become a reason to say, 'Hey this is why you're paying this CPM for this show."

Frank Radice, managing partner of VIDA FR, the media and marketing consultancy, also suggested that the need to understand such trends was having a broader impact across these sectors.

"I absolutely know that each and every one of the major advertising agencies, all the networks and cable channels have big departments figuring this out right now," he said. "They will get it figured out, and turn it into money."

Data sourced from The Wrap; additional content by Warc staff