When I was a child I thought that everyone watched television. I assumed that programmes promoted as big events were watched by everyone in the country. I suppose this was partly a product of conversations with classmates at school, which revolved around TV programmes from the previous evening. Such landmark TV events as a new episode of The Russ Abbot Show or New Faces '87 provided the excited chatter of the playground.
However, as I grew up it became clear that not everyone viewed the world through the same televisual prism as me. Very rarely did more than a third of the UK population watch the same programmes, with the odd exception such as England's nail-bitingly tense exit from the 1990 football World Cup semi-finals. Nevertheless, television provided shared experiences, especially back when it was normal to have only four channels to watch.
The Water-Cooler MomentAround the turn of the century the phrase "water-cooler moment" became popular as a description of the memorable moments which dominate workplace conversations the next day. The phrase is derived from the common location where office-workers take a break from work, grab a drink and have a chat with their colleagues. Television and sport (and certainly televised sport) are the modern forms of community; shared passions and sources of heated discussions and jokes.
But television has drastically changed in the last twenty years. The emergence of satellite television and cable television has introduced hundreds of new TV channels into our homes, giving us much more choice. This has had the inevitable effect of diluting the audience and making it less likely that the bloke working at the desk next to yours watched the same programme. This means that your water-cooler moment has less chance of resonating with others.
Further depleting this diluted audience are other competing activities such as DVDs, cinema, computer games, music and the Internet. Fewer people are watching television. The nightly audiences of 18 million for regular programmes like Eastenders and Coronation Street are long gone. These days, only the biggest shows will ever reach audiences of over 15 million, and even then only in rare circumstances like the final of Britain's Got Talent. In short, the water-cooler moment no longer has the relevance it once had.
The Social NetworkStill, us humans are a social bunch. This is evident in the popularity of social networks online. And these social networks are taking the place of the water-cooler in providing the platform for communal televisual experiences. Leading the charge, as we all know, are Facebook and Twitter. Much more so than Facebook, Twitter is an open social network which encourages conversation. Almost anyone in the world can read what anyone else in the world writes on Twitter. Trending topics (the most discussed subjects at any particular time) and hashtags provide an unprecedented ability to read what other people think about a common topic.
Often these topics will relate to television programmes; so much so that in the UK top trending topics nearly always include something connected to a TV show being broadcast at that moment. Sometimes programmes like X-Factor, Britain's Got Talent, Eastenders and even Question Time will dominate the trending topics during broadcast with references to aspects of the shows. Many users of Twitter are tweeting whilst watching television; often reading others' comments and responding; thus generating conversations about what they’re watching – the instant water-cooler moment.
Twitter ye not?There is another dimension to this which never existed before, and makes television a kind of interactive experience. The popularity of Twitter with celebrities means that 'normal' members of the public can follow the comments of people they are watching on television. This creates some interesting scenarios.
Celebrities can tweet during the broadcast of their own programmes (assuming they’re not live). For example, Graham Linehan (@Glinner) provided interesting commentary during Channel 4's 'Father Ted Night' last year. Twitter is now being used as TV's own equivalent of a DVD extra.
Also, users can send celebrities unsolicited comments. Ok, there's no guarantee they will be read, but often they are, which means the process of audience feedback has gained an instant platform. For better or worse, it is possible for a celebrity to find out from Twitter what sort of response their programme is getting from parts of the audience as it happens.
Celebrities can perform a search of their own name on Twitter and find out what is being said about them, even when those comments are made by people not following or being followed by that person. I know of a number of instances of people mentioning a celebrity in a tweet and then being surprised by a direct response from that celebrity. In one example a friend of mine used Twitter to settle an argument about which programme Andi Peters used to present on the BBC. Unexpectedly Andi Peters answered the question himself, laying to rest any doubts about the reliability of the information! Be careful what you say on Twitter - you might inadvertently be telling someone exactly what you think of them.
Glinner SpaceI asked Graham Linehan about his experiences with Twitter:
Your tweets during the broadcast of Channel 4's Father Ted Night provided the kind of extra information usually found in DVD extras. Do you think 'live-tweeting' is something we can expect to see more of during TV programmes?
I don't see why not. Lots of fun watching a show and tweeting a commentary. Certainly more fun than watching the show in silence.
Do you think you would 'live-tweet' any of your TV programmes in the future?
Probably! Maybe not on first runs but certainly on repeats.
Twitter provides an unprecedented level of instant audience feedback. As a TV writer, how useful do you find this?
I find it useful as a human being, but not necessarily as a writer. Audiences may think they want, say, a Die Hard parody, but I prefer to give them things they don't know they want.
To what degree do you think Twitter is the new 'water-cooler'?
Well, it's true that the water cooler is now our PC/phone, so the water cooler is everywhere. So I guess I agree.
Hashtag WallopTV shows have also quickly realised the power of Twitter as a free marketing tool. They use dedicated hashtags related to their own show and encourage viewers to use the hashtag when discussing it. This increases the likelihood of seeing their show appear in the trending topics (and spread awareness to people who might be otherwise unaware of the show), but also it gives the programme makers a handy keyword with which to obtain instant audience feedback.
Interestingly, this has recently been stepped up to another level by Britain's Got Talent, who have attempted to get individual acts trending on Twitter by placing a specific hashtag onscreen during their auditions. It is highly likely that we will see more new and inventive ways of using hashtags to promote television shows.
So Twitter is the new water-cooler. My rose-tinted idea as a child that the population watch the same programmes was never accurate, and never will be. But while it's true that fewer people watch the same programmes at the same time now than twenty years ago, Twitter enables a truly communal viewing experience. Like never before it is possible to share a televisual experience with other viewers across the nation. I know of some people who sometimes choose to watch a programme broadcast live, rather than on a catch-up service later, because they want to "join in" on Twitter. Perhaps Twitter is the first truly social network.
You can find Graham Linehan on Twitter at @Glinner.