Why TV is best watched with Twitter

Downton die-hard and Front Row presenter Kirsty Lang says television's more fun in 140 characters

Most of my TV viewing these days is done on catch-up. But not Downton Abbey. That’s my Sunday night treat, my guilty pleasure. But I wouldn’t enjoy it as much if I wasn’t reading Twitter on my smart phone at the same time; it’s like having a bunch of tiny stand-up comedians inside a second screen cracking jokes.

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I used to have a laugh watching Downton with my stepdaughter. But now I’m the only woman left in our house and my husband and 16-year- old son aren’t interested. So instead I banter with 5,000 Twitter followers about Lady Mary’s bedroom antics (#shocking) or the fact that the Earl’s dog is called Isis (#awkward).

I was thrilled when a tabloid newspaper printed one of my #DowntonAbbey tweets. It was at the end of the first episode of the current series when the fire started in Lady Edith’s bedroom. Everyone was being evacuated and Lord Grantham shouted “Save the dog!” so I tweeted “Thank God he didn’t shout save Isis” given the current situation in the Middle East.

To be fair on the scriptwriters, very few people had heard of the terrorist organisation formerly known as Isis when they were shooting that episode, but the dog’s name has provided an endless stream of witty banter on Twitter.

The official Tweeter-in-Chief for Downton Abbey is Jessica Fellowes, niece of the drama’s creator, Julian Fellowes. She says: “Social media is one of the keys to the show’s success. There’s a real community of viewers who act like an online club chatting to each other about every plot twist. That’s why people prefer to watch it as it goes out instead of on catch-up.”

Jessica Fellowes provides a live Twitter feed during the show answering viewers’ questions. “Julian doesn’t think everything has to be explained in the script so he will drop in a reference to the Marconi scandal or Ramsay MacDonald or history.” 

When Isis the dog was trending on Twitter, Jessica was there to provide an explanation. Highclere Castle – where Downton is filmed – was the seat of the fifth Earl of Carnarvon, who famously discovered the tomb of the Egyptian boy pharaoh, Tutankhamun. So Julian Fellowes called the first Downton dog Pharaoh and the next one after an Egyptian god. Who knew?

You see, I’m not just having a laugh when I watch Downton Abbey. I’m learning stuff.

The first in-depth survey into the relationship between Twitter and TV-viewing was published recently and it found that in Britain high levels of Twitter activity are confined to about 30 programmes. It’s no surprise that The X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing are in the top ten, because they’ve got huge live audiences, and there’s an element of competition involved.

Live sport and news shows also score very highly, accounting for about 50 per cent of all Twitter activity. The Question Time hashtag – #bbcqt – generates a good deal of audience discussion about topical issues, as well as witty banter about political pomposity and bad haircuts. Question Time generates an average of 50–70,000 tweets per show. This went up to 150,000 at the end of last May when Joey Barton and Piers Morgan appeared on the panel, because they both have a huge Twitter following, and tweeted about the programme in the run-up and afterwards.

Question Time doesn’t go out live – it’s recorded “as live”, so while many people tweet throughout the show, the producers cannot incorporate tweets into the programme. However, if the appearance of people such as Piers Morgan and Joey Barton provokes such a large spike in online activity we could see producers choosing guests on the basis of their Twitter following.

And that isn’t the only way in which Twitter is starting to affect what and who we watch on our screens. Constructed reality shows such as The Only Way is Essex and Gogglebox, which are recorded on a week-to-week basis right before they are aired, are in a position to take into consideration who is proving popular or what storylines are generating the most Twitter activity.

“We recently held a Twitter vote for which male member of the cast people most wanted to see in their pants by the end of the show,” TOWIE producer Andrew Barron smirks, while promising to satisfy the fans’ salacious appetite in the coming weeks.

Stephen Lambert, who makes Gogglebox, explains that, “With any show like ours, or TOWIE, that is made within seven days, tweets can change what happens the next week because we are influenced by what the tweeters say. TV producers like myself used to look jealously at theatre or cinema, where you could physically sit with the audience. All we used to get was a few crank letters, but now we can feel the audience’s reaction second by second.”

“Twitter provides low-cost, very fast, real-time feedback,” says Andy Brown of Kantar Media, who produced the recent Twitter survey. Overnight ratings will tell television producers and advertisers how many people had their TV sets tuned to a certain programme, but it won’t tell them which bits the audience liked most.”

They can also break down the audience into age and gender profiles, which is very useful indeed for the advertisers. I thought I was having fun, but in the course of researching this article I now know that I’ve unwittingly become part of a vast online focus group providing valuable market research. Brown goes on to explain that, “The technology exists to measure semantics, so when you tweet about Downton Abbey, someone can analyse the words you are using.”

I can’t help but find that fact chilling. What would advertisers deduce from me tweeting about Isis the dog? The mind boggles… 

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Downton Abbey is on ITV tonight (9th November) at 9.00pm