How Twitter Will Rescue Live Television

There have been a great many blog posts that have talked about the marriage of Twitter and TV to create social TV. Indeed, the Twitter Media team’s Robin Sloan gave a talk recently at the NewTeeVee Live conference on just this topic. He described three different ways in which Twitter has been used to enhance the live viewing experience:

  1. running commentary: while the show is going on, someone from the show Tweets about the show.
  2. social viewing: while the show is going on, viewers Tweet about the show.
  3. live integrated content: while the show is going on, viewers Tweet to/about the show, and selected content is included in the broadcast, creating a social TV experience.

This last approach — integrating Twitter content into live broadcasts — has been vastly underused, is tremendously undervalued, and represents no less than a complete revolution for the television industry.

First, the problem.

Today’s television-watchers are not seeing nearly as many advertisements as they used to; as a result, product sales are dipping. DVRs have enabled time-shifted viewing and complete ad-skipping. Hulu and Netflix stream individual shows on demand, and more tech-savvy crowds download fresh, ad-free episodes via BitTorrent and Usenet. The internet allows us the content we want when we want it; this is great for consumers but disastrous for media companies.

Let’s just park that thought for a moment.

Second, some touchy-feely stuff.

There’s a very interesting human phenomenon we’ve all probably experienced or seen in one way or another.

  1. At a sporting event, you jump excitedly as the camera pans across you in the crowd (“We’re number 1! Hi Mom! I’m on TV!”). You catch a ball at a baseball game (“Yeah! High fives all around!”).
  2. You’re interviewed briefly by the local news station. You tell your friends and family to tune to Channel X, and you watch for the entire news hour to catch your 8-second snippet. (“I’m gonna be on the news; watch it, tape it!”)
  3. Your letter to a newspaper or magazine gets published in the Mailbag section. You save the issue to show others, and friends email or call to congratulate you on your thoughtful prose.

At the core of these experiences is excitement driven by our inherent clamor to break from the norm. We’re given a momentary shot at fame. At standing out from the crowd.

  • Celebrity.
  • Recognition.
  • Validation.
  • Respect.

These moments, though fleeting, are personally invigorating. It makes us feel good to get noticed.


Incorporating Twitter into live TV to create a social television experience gives new opportunities to trigger this same effect instantly. The way that it is incorporated, though, must move beyond ‘tweeting about the show’ to ‘tweeting to the show’…and the show must respond. Consider a few possibilities:

  1. Late-night talk show hosts swap out Viewer Mail with real, live Tweets. Jimmy Fallon conducts submissions for Late Night Hashtags in real time. (“Awesome, did you see that Jimmy Fallon used my Tweet!?”)
  2. Political commentary show hosts (Rachel Maddow, Bill O’Reilly, etc.) solicit questions from Twitter users, live. The questions/comments flood in, a producer feeds a few through into the broadcast, and the host responds/engages immediately. (“My question/comment was witty/smart enough to rise above the rest and get addressed directly in the show. She was talking *to me*.”)
  3. ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption (PTI) is wholly built around rapid-fire debate on the sports world’s most contentious topics du jour. This same format, but using topics/questions sourced from Twitter, could be applied to any number of genres (sports, fashion, news, technology, etc.).

With Twitter, the barrier to entry for interaction from the audience has never been lower. The short form of a Tweet, coupled with its near-instant delivery, makes it absolutely ideal to deliver on these possibilities and produce engagement levels never before seen with TV. Live television will move beyond a social viewing experience to become a social interaction experience.


With the audience actively participating — to drive the direction of the show, to interact directly with TV celebrities from the comfort of their living rooms, and ultimately to see their name in lights — media companies will be rewarded with a truly engaged audience, something that is not possible in a DVR-recorded, time-shifted world. Since audience members only get this shot at notoriety by interacting with the show, they are effectively forced to watch it live. This social TV experience is good for the media companies (increased ad sales), good for the advertisers (increased exposure), and — if they’re smart enough or witty enough or artful enough in their Tweets — good for the watching participant (a shot at glory).

That’s a huge win/win/win all around.

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