Can TV deals be winners for Twitter, networks, watchers?

With Comcast as its latest partner, Twitter shows it is doubling down on its TV partnership strategy. But do Twitter users want to watch TV clips, and can the deals meet the networks' goals?

Users of Twitter and Comcast's new See It feature will be able to watch Comcast-owned TV clips and shows via Twitter. Screenshot by Lance Whitney/CNET

As Twitter edges closer to its IPO, the pressure is on not just to maximize revenue, but to demonstrate that it still has a lot of growth potential.

That is surely one of the key drivers behind Twitter's recent spate of partnerships with TV networks and other providers of compelling video. Already, the company has inked pacts to embed tweets with video from A-list partners like the NFL , ESPN, CNET parent CBS, and the NBA. And Wednesday, it announced perhaps the most ambitious TV gambit yet, a deal that lets Twitter serve as a front end for a wide variety of Comcast's programming.

At the heart of the Comcast deal is a new system called See It that will let Comcast subscribers watch and record shows from that company's slew of networks, including NBC, NBC Sports Network, CNBC, Bravo, and more. Among the first shows to be part of the arrangement are "The Voice" and "Sunday Night Football."

There's no doubt that Twitter is already home to much of the so-called "second screen" conversation about TV shows. The platform is ideal for people to share their thoughts about what they're watching, and to interact with others, even sometimes the stars of the shows themselves. And thanks to searchable hashtags and promoted tweets, TV networks can already place ads directly into the middle of those conversations.

But Twitter's TV partnerships raise two essential and related questions that no one outside Twitter and its partners yet know the answer to. First, do Twitter users really want to use the service to watch TV? And second, what do Twitter's TV partners hope to get out of these deals?

It's probably too soon for a definitive answer to whether people will watch these kinds of clips. A quick perusal of videos provided by the NFL suggests that there is some hunger for them, but not necessarily the kind that advertisers would salivate over. A video recap of the Denver Broncos victory over the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday -- a tense, hard-fought game between two very popular teams that drew a TV audience of 28.3 million viewers -- garnered 647 retweets and 300 favorites.

Those are healthy numbers, though it's impossible to know how many views the video -- which included a short advertisement -- actually got. But several other NFL tweets with embedded videos over the last few days generated far less engagement, with retweets in the low three digits and favorites sometimes below 100.

Still, the NFL believes in Twitter enough to have made it its first social network partner . "[Twitter] came with a much more robust appreciation for what their distribution could mean for content owners like ourselves," Hans Schroeder, senior vice president of media strategy and development for the NFL, recently told CNET. "For us, one of the real attractive things about this partnership ... is the ability to take our content and use their ability to promote within their distribution network, and make sure a number much larger than 5 million people see this content and become more aware of the conversation around the NFL that happens today."

Twitter's TV partners, then, may well find themselves wondering whether the medium will work for them the same way. "I think it's definitely a strong and important move on Comcast's part as a programmer in promoting NBCUniversal's programs," Heather Way, a senior analyst at Park Associates, said of the Twitter-Comcast deal. But "it's more about promotion of programs...than about advertising."

The idea, said Way, is that Comcast, and likely other Twitter TV partners, want to use Twitter, in the short term at least, to promote their programs. If that's successful, she suggested, advertising will be a lucrative result. "It's a bit of, show if it works first," Way said, "then worry about advertising."

That makes sense. Though financial terms of Twitter TV partnerships aren't known, it's probable that the clips being embedded by the various networks may very well be acceptable loss leaders in the short term. If it's proven that there's a high level of engagement with the clips, and that Twitter users are responding to the advertising that comes with them, then the win for the networks would be compounded. But those networks surely make far more money from advertising on TV than they ever would through Twitter, so their interest is in making sure people watch their shows.

Even the Comcast deal is about that. "See It is a simple yet powerful feature that creates an instant, online remote control," Comcast CEO Brian Roberts said in a statement about the partnership with Twitter. "Comcast is taking a leap forward in social TV by enabling Twitter users to more easily find and view the shows they want to watch and discover new shows."

Using the new See It tool, Comcast subscribers will be able to watch their shows more easily via Twitter. But they'll still be watching only after paying for a TV subscription.

What Twitter is hoping for with its TV partnerships, suggested Brian Blau, a Gartner analyst, is to accelerate the second screen TV conversations already happening on the social network and inspire more engagement with its partners' content.

This could be considered a make or break proposition for Twitter. The company is hoping to raise $1 billion with its IPO, despite the fact that it has never made a dime of profit. In fact, its S-1 filing revealed that it had lost $69 million in the first half of 2013, up from $49 million in losses a year earlier. Clearly, the company has no choice but to do whatever it can to boost revenues. And partnering with networks that have huge, passionate followings and proven revenue potential is as good a bet as any.

Without question, Twitter has convinced many of the biggest names in TV that it is a worthy partner, but none of the deals it's struck are likely to last very long if it can't deliver results. To be sure, part of that responsibility will lie with the networks themselves -- if they don't produce compelling videos to add to their tweets, users won't engage. But it's also up to Twitter both to keep its audience growing, thereby ensuring more potential viewers for TV networks, and limiting churn.

Still, given that so many top networks have already signed on, will others feel the pressure to join them? Blau said it all depends on how well Twitter's existing partnerships do. "I think the answer lies in the effectiveness of this," Blau said. "There may be a collective holding of the breath, [and network executives] saying 'hmm.'"

 

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