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Twitter-integrated TV: Stepping into the time warp?

Some viewers would eat it up; others would ignore it. But packaged right by the industry, Twitter could easily become the biggest thing in interactive TV since Dr Frank-N-Furter played the hot dog.

Commentary Years ago, I sat in on a midnight screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show in Boston's Harvard Square, where a flood of Rocky-loving uni students peppered the entire lamentable hour and a half with a hilarious alternative audio track consisting of snide jokes, catcalls and lewd commentary that made the whole event utterly memorable.

The joy of such events lies not in the movie itself, but in the experience watching it with a thousand actively engaged strangers. And if recent trends in Twitter use are any indication, that experience is finding new life as strangers from around the country, and around the world, join together to share their running commentary via the world's fastest-growing social network service.

This time around, they're using the social network features of www.hashtags.org to not only tweet from their mobiles or laptops while watching TV, but to join ongoing conversations that are aggregated through Hashtag's tweet scraping capabilities.

Will Twitter on television take up where audience participation at the Rocky Horror Picture Show

Viewers of the hit show MasterChef, for example, shared their thoughts by including the tag #masterchef somewhere in their tweet; these hashtags were added to the running list at www.hashtags.org/tag/masterchef. Graphs showed up to 240 tweets per day were added to the conversation, which included comments such as "Would Matt please finish eating his food before speaking, fat bastard", "Is Sam's voice breaking?" and "LMAO catering for Navy...easy...serve up any old shite...mess food horrific."

The net result of all this tweeting is something not too far off the Rocky Horror experience: a complementary flow of social interaction that adds interesting depth and interactivity to your bog-standard TV show. And, odds are, if you can watch it, it's being tweeted about: Top Gear, Merlin, The Chaser, and Lost are among the many shows posting good numbers of tweets. It's like watching your favourite show with hundreds of total strangers and close friends, without leaving the comfort of your lounge room.

Tweeting through the tube

TV broadcasters have been talking about this kind of interactivity for years, but so far the best we've gotten is pedestrian examples as the "big red button" that triggers interactive TV features. Interactive TV has emerged in fits and starts, but still lacks the penetration and broad interest to have gained more than a niche following.

A friend recently showed me how the LG BD370 Blu-ray player allows you to search and play YouTube videos in your lounge room with your remote control. Its reasonably slick integration highlights the convergence of online resources with living-room entertainment in a much more relevant and effective way than those early attempts to bring full computer capabilities to the small screen.

Media centre PCs have their appeal, but for many users they are too much "PC" and too little "media centre", with chronic high prices and complexity turning off buyers. LG's successful YouTube integration, however, shows that online resources do indeed have a place if they're packaged and presented correctly.

Twitter is very much a niche technology, but its rapid growth suggests that is quickly changing. And if a growing number of people are finding value in using Twitter to share their thoughts while they watch TV, can it be long before the broadcasters and new-media wonks follow?

Why not add Twitter to flat-screen TVs that have become hugely internet-aware over the past year or so? The panel could overlay a scrolling ticker of recent Twitter feeds as they come in, allowing viewers to enter their own thoughts on the current show as they're watching; tweets are, after all, compact and text-based, so a perfectly suitable interface could easily be crammed across one or two horizontal lines at the top or bottom of the screen.

I saw this happening in a recent technical demo at Ericsson's Melbourne headquarters. The demo was to showcase the capabilities of a fibre-optic network, but one of those capabilities included a Twitter application sitting on top of Ericssons's own IPTV software. It's not commercially available, but it — and interfaces like it — could be very, very soon.

With the explicit support of broadcasters, hashtag addresses could be easily added to the digital TV stream for any show, ensuring that viewers were tweeting to the correct hashtag group. Providing these features could be a boon for broadcasters, since they would keep people tweeting during commercials rather than channel-surfing. Viewers wouldn't mind the ads so much as they'd have something else to do while the TV is showing something they're less interested in.

If Twitter continues to grow in popularity, I'd be surprised if it doesn't become the next big TV-integrated feature. Some viewers would eat it up; others would ignore it. But advertisers would love it because viewers would be tweeting during commercials rather than changing channels or going to the loo. Viewers could post feedback and questions for guests and hosts during live shows, providing an instant feedback loop that's currently unavailable.

Say what you want about Twitter, but those who use it extensively have long ago moved past what-are-you-eating conversations to use it as a real-time, globally relevant source of information. It's as immediate as your mobile phone, and a lot cleaner than inviting dozens of strangers into your lounge room. Packaged right by the industry, it could easily become the biggest thing in interactive TV since the big red button.

What do you think? Are you tweeting while you watch TV? Would you buy a particular TV because it was Twitter-enabled? Share your thoughts in the Talkback below!