What Tom Said: Tying Twitter’s Future to Broadcast TV

Live at 5... and 5:01, 5:02, 5:03... June 17, 2015
SPRINGFIELD, VA.— Live events are the lifeblood of broadcasting, whether they’re planned, like the Super Bowl or the, Academy Awards, or breaking news. This has become even more evident as more viewers access their favorite programs via on-demand and abandon the idea of arranging their lives around the TV schedule. Despite this, many viewers are still attracted to the idea of “appointment TV,” as evidenced by the recent successes of NBC’s live productions of “The Sound of Music” and “Peter Pan.”

One of the reasons for the return of this phenomenon—which pretty much disappeared in the early 1960s but has made a bit of a comeback—is the tie-in with social media. Whether viewers are prompted by “hate watching” a live production (a popular activity during “Peter Pan,” according to Salon), or cheering their favorite team in the NBA finals, social media has played an increasingly important role in providing the promise of interactive TV that never really materialized until now.

Of all the social media outlets, Twitter is probably the one that most resembles broadcasting. Think about it: When you send out a tweet, you are broadcasting (a link, pithy comment or criticism) to your followers. Adding a #hashtag to your tweet allows you to broadcast to an even larger audience.

Twitter, however, has struggled to establish an effective business plan to compete with similar social media services like Facebook. Last week, amid reports of flagging revenues, the company announced the resignation of CEO Dick Costolo, who helped the company navigate its way from a small startup to the established social media player it is today. Despite efforts to increase its advertising base, Twitter remains a distant second to the Facebook powerhouse when it comes to revenues. Likewise, it also has trouble retaining and maintaining an active user base—although the company says it has more than 250 million users, more than two-thirds of them are inactive. For many users, Twitter is either “too hard to use” or lacks the immediate gratification of Facebook.

That’s why I was intrigued when The New York Times published an article last week that provided some much needed advice on how Twitter can up its game—namely, tie itself more to live events. In his article “For Twitter, Future Means Here and Now,” Farhad Manjoo, who based his piece on a much longer article by venture capitalist Chris Sacca,  makes the argument that Twitter needs to become more focused on its biggest strength, namely, live events and breaking news.

“We live in an era dominated by time-shifted media,” Manjoo writes. “Just about everything worth watching can be watched later, when it’s more convenient. Even so, many of us find experiencing media communally to be a deeply meaningful experience—much more meaningful than watching it later. The desire for communal experiences explains why the Super Bowl is still a mega TV event, why ESPN has grown to become one of the most valuable media properties on the planet, and why HBO has turned Sunday nights into a marquee time for television.”

Adding that “Twitter is well-positioned to take advantage of this desire,” Manjoo writes that the social media giant could add a few features—such as notifications and algorithms to create a more visual and interactive community surrounding a live program, sporting event or breaking news—that would better enable this burgeoning phenomenon. When viewers catch Cookie doing something outrageous on ‘Empire,’ they might want to share their outrage with their friends on Facebook—but they can get better traction on Twitter, announcing their reaction to a bigger audience simply by adding the right hashtag.

Ever since the dawn of broadcasting, when a breaking event happens, consumers turned to radio and television for the latest news. They’re still doing that, but they’re also tuning into social media, and in particular, Twitter. And with Twitter’s addition of Periscope—which allows live video streaming that expires after a certain time—its similarities with broadcasting are even stronger.

As the broadcasting industry searches for better ways to remain relevant in an increasingly crowded media landscape, tie-ins with social media are becoming more popular. One example was demonstrated by a successful partnership between Twitter and the USTA for the US Open, discussed at NewBay Media’s Live TV Summit last fall. Partnerships like these, along with an increased focus on live events, can help both broadcasters and Twitter increase their visibility and relevancy.   

“The best analog for Mr. Sacca’s vision is a digital-era version of television or radio — a global coming together in an otherwise lifeless, anodyne digital world,” Manjoo concludes in his article. “Twitter’s next chief could build such a thing. And it could be glorious.”

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