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Why Twitter will survive: Television

This summer marked an important pop culture anniversary: It’s been 10 years since the first season of “American Idol.”

A decade later, we can see that season wasn’t just a landmark for television. It was also an omen predicting the arrival of social media.

* * * *

When Kelly Clarkson sang “A Moment Like This” to 23 million viewers on September 4, 2002, we were in a different world of technology. Most of us couldn’t get the Internet on our phones. Facebook and Twitter were years away. The first iPhones wouldn’t appear for another 5 years.

It’s true, fans were interacting with “American Idol” in a relatively new way: Voting by text message for their favorite singers. Yet that alone isn’t an especially social activity, and it’s not why “American Idol” was a trailblazer.

No, where American Idol really broke the mold was with realtime commentary. Specifically, the snide remarks from judge Simon Cowell.

Cowell’s brutally honest commentary was the twist that no other variety show had taken to this level before. Instant judgment was often validation that your opinion was right. Some singers are just terrible. Meanwhile, Kelly Clarkson survived the gauntlet because she was actually good and deserved to win. It felt fair.

* * * *

Today there’s a Simon Cowell for every show on every channel, and it’s called Twitter.

Twitter. As developers predict its death, social ad revenue stalls, and adoption seems stuck at just 15% of adult Internet users, Twitter might look pretty feeble right now. But Twitter has a powerful advocate: The television industry.

TV still touches more people, churns through more money, and drives more purchasing decisions than any other kind of media, by an enormous margin. And Twitter makes TV better.

Watch a network show these days and there’s a good chance you’ll see a hashtag on screen. Many people now watch TV while clutching a second screen, such as a smartphone or an iPad. (A recent survey found 77% of viewers watch TV with another device in hand!) Plenty of these viewers follow TV hashtags on Twitter to get that realtime commentary. It’s fun to see if the opinion you’re forming about the TV show squares with what other people are feeling. It’s especially enjoyable to read fellow viewers who are smart, funny, connected, and have very faster fingers—you might compare them to American Idol’s expert judges.

* * * *

Almost exactly 10 years after the first “American Idol” finale, we saw another landmark moment in television. It was August 30, 2012, a date which will forever be remembered as the night Clint Eastwood yelled at a chair at Republican National Convention.

Millions of people at home watched in confusion, unsure what to make of it. Clint Eastwood is a good guy, right? And this is weird. Is it good? Is it awful? Viewers struggled to process it.

And then, on Twitter, the voice of Roger Ebert appeared, and it was like everyone’s opinion gelled at the same time.

“Clint, my hero, is coming across as sad and pathetic,” Ebert Tweeted. “He didn’t need to do this to himself. It’s unworthy of him.”

If Obama wins, Ebert’s Tweet could be the single most important communication of the presidential campaign. It represents the moment where even people ready to root for Clint Eastwood and the Republican Party realized they were watching a pathetic old man spout nonsense.

The matter was settled before Eastwood’s rant was even over. Thousands and thousands of instant judges panned the speech, with Ebert playing the role of Simon Cowell. Objectively, by popular vote, this performance stank. In the next day’s reports, mainstream journalists used Twitter as evidence to support what they already knew: The Eastwood speech was a political disaster.

* * * *

When people say Twitter is a feedback loop of geeks and journalists talking to each other, they might be on to something. Much of the Twitter experience depends on whom you follow, and it’s still an annoying service to set up and maintain. But the addiction of watching TV with Twitter as a companion—everything from serial dramas to sports to political news—is powerful.

It suggests that Twitter has tremendous value as a complement to the TV industry. Twitter, or some system like it, is here to stay.

* * * *

Follow me on Twitter: @BreakingCopy and @DarylLang.

— By Daryl Lang. Filed under Politics, Social Media, Television


  1. olivia says:

    Great article. Really got me thinking about how I’ve always got an iphone or laptop infront of me when I’m on the couch. I love to pick apart shows. Great comparison!

  2. Matt Brennan says:

    There have been quite a few times now, where if I’m wondering about a news event, I’ll go to Twitter first. Somebody on Twitter will give you the news source you need to check. Good blog!

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