For television, Twitter is the new live water cooler conversation

Reconnecting to live, community-based habits

August 8, 2013

The only thing busier than my Twitter timeline during a live airing of MTV’s "Catfish" is my Twitter timeline during a live airing of ABC’s "Scandal." Both shows illicit the sort of rabid fan response that can turn outsiders into insiders.

The same thing also recently happened with the release of Netflix’s "Orange is the New Black." Despite breaking the format of traditional network television by releasing a complete season at once, for a few days after, #OITNB was a trending topic.

Not every show can create this sort of fire. Nielsen recently released a study called “The Follow-Back” that analyzed TV ratings and accompanying tweets. It found Twitter messages were shown to cause a “significant increase” in ratings 29 percent of the time.

This was especially true for competitive/reality-based television shows, sports, and comedies. "Catfish" corresponds with their findings, but why do shows like "Orange is the New Black" and "Scandal" also have such significant representation in the Twittersphere?

Unlike other network dramas, both "Orange is the New Black" and "Scandal" inhabit a special quality often missing: the ability to aggressively interact with viewers. With "Orange is the New Black," the interaction lies in the ways in which we can view it. 

Its release is made for binge watching. But rather than discovering the show on one’s own time, it’s calculated release and critical acclaim escalated its appeal. Consumers could read a positive review from The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum, and then curl up with all 13 episodes.

 

With "Scandal," the interaction lies with the wild plot lines that dive from one extreme to the next. But like "Catfish" and "Orange is the New Black," this show's plot lines make you want to talk about them.

In an interview with Michelle Martin about "Scandal’s" Twitter popularity, Gene Demby of NPR's Code Switch said, “It's like watching the Super Bowl on DVR, right? You want to be in the room with everyone kind of yelling at the screen and rolling their eyes and throwing their hands up and saying all kinds of snarky stuff.”

There is information to decipher, but unlike a show like "Mad Men" that often requires research to understand its layers of references to things like "Dante’s Inferno" or "Rosemary’s Baby," these shows keep you glued to their characters 
— what they do and don’t say and what will ultimately happen to them. It’s almost impossible to not engage.

The fever of their fandom inspires other people to both start watching the show and to participate in the discussion. I only watched a handful of prior episodes before I started watching the current season of "Catfish." But while scanning my Twitter feed during the premiere of the first episode, I noticed most people were talking about only one thing: what was happening on their screens. Soon enough, I began participating at well. There was no desire to try and “fit in” with the discussion at hand; rather the action of the screen was so compelling that there was little I could hold back.

We consume television in a fractured state. The UK drama "Skins" ended on Monday after seven seasons. I have never watched an episode on my television. Instead, I relied on illegal streaming websites to fuel my passion for a show that perfectly encapsulates the confusion, desire, and melancholy of being a young person.

Other shows I save for massive DVR viewings. If I miss an episode of a favorite series, I can wait until the next morning to find a clear stream on the network’s website. And for shows that slipped between my fingers during the regular television season, there are always rentable DVDs. This is Netflix’s bread and butter.

In that sense, social media as a place of community helps fuel the lost group aspect of television watching. Twitter connects TV to its live, collective habits. It is a reminder that entertainment can be even greater when matched with others who equally care about it.

My family and I often watched shows together in my parents’ bedroom. When we got older and busier, this fell away, but my sister and I still found time to watch our favorite shows together and pause our viewings to comment on the situations before us.

I live alone now and I didn’t realize I missed this social interaction. But with the release of shows like "Scandal" or "Orange is the New Black," I am finding that the social (with family, with friends and strangers, too) is merely a few clicks away.

 

What is your favorite TV show to engage with online? Let us know in the comments section.  

"Catfish" airs Tuesdays at 9pm CST on MTV. "Orange is the New Black" is available on Netflix Instant Streaming. "Scandal" returns in the fall to ABC on Thursdays at 9pm CST.

Britt Julious writes about culture in and outside of Chicago. Follow Britt's essays for WBEZ's Tumblr or on Twitter @britticisms.