Twitter’s place in television.

“Thank-you Prime Minister….and now here’s what Steve in Chelmsford thinks”.

Do you care what Steve in Chelmsford has to say about the war in Syria? The BBC (or any other major broadcaster) certainly thinks his opinion adds valuable commentary to that provided by both trained journalists and respected commentators.

Yes, Twitter’s role in television has me slightly concerned.

Let me start by saying that I’m a hashtag fan, and I regularly use Zeebox to check other viewers’ thoughts on something I’m watching. It’s inclusive and reaffirming to see your sentiment shared across a wider community. But it’s my choice to do this and (unless I want it to) it doesn’t distract from the broadcast.

Broadcasters are obviously keen to use Twitter as a way to drive viewer engagement. Major events, such as the Royal wedding generated enormous volumes of tweets (16k per minute), and broadcasters such as CNN were quick to push their hashtag. #CNNTV trended during the live broadcast, no doubt increasing viewership.

CNN Twitter at the Royal Wedding
CNN Twitter at the Royal Wedding

A report this month from Nielson went so far as to say that Twitter traffic caused a “statistically significant” changes in live television ratings in 29% of cases measured. This is positive and good evidence. Until now it’s always been a little unclear as to whether influence was one-way; ie: a popular show resulted in Twitter traffic, but a popular hashtag didn’t necessarily make people watch television.

As a secondary benefit, at a time when consumers prefer to time-shift their viewing (through DVRs) or view on-demand (through a service such as Netflix), the television hashtag is pushing live television. Producers love live television, that’s where the advertising money is.

And this is all fine. I applaud the broadcasting industry for embracing a new technology for its own gain. Where I object is the need to pepper broadcast content with viewer’s Twitter responses. In some genres it’s almost de rigueur (think Big Brother, TOWIE or any other celebrity based programming) and in these cases it typically suits the style and interactivity of the show.

However (and this is a big however), the same does not apply across all genres. From daily magazine programmes to heavyweight broadcast news, the views of respected journalists and political / social commentators are being supplemented with those from Anne from Brighton.

Really? Where’s the perspective and relevance?

It’s intrusive, irrelevant and it’s lazy television.

What do the producers think its audience are getting from this experience? Do the opinions of Anne from Brighton count for the whole of that town? Do her views warrant 10 seconds of national airtime or was she just top of the list as the production assistants scrambled collected Tweets?

My theory is that producers feel guilty. They are using Twitter to drive conversation and, ultimately, ratings and believe that its audience is only engaging on the off-chance that they get “read-out” on the telly. I don’t believe this to be the case at all. This is not the audience’s motivation. The broadcast industry is missing the point.

I think most would agree that Twitter can be a useful accompaniment to television. I find Zeebox a great companion app. However, the level of its influence in driving ratings and engagement is still subject to largely anecdotal evidence. For example, we know that a high rating television show causes more people to tweet (and more frequently), but whether this is a result of the sheer number of available viewers or because more compelling content causes people to tweet is unknown.

 NB – there are some useful resources for broadcasters looking to use Twitter here.



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