NBCUniversal exec criticizes Twitter’s pitch to TV, (but here’s why he’s wrong)

Yesterday, the Financial Times printed a damning quote from a NBCUniversal TV exec, who openly questioned Twitter’s claim to deliver viewership to TV shows.

In response to a question about Twitter’s pitch to TV networks about its ability to drive eyeballs to their shows, NBCUniversal’s head of research Alan Wurtzel said that TV show ratings are more likely to drive Twitter activity, and not the other way round. 

“A lot of people want to show that they are on the cutting edge. One of the things that is on the cutting edge is social media,” Mr Wurtzel said. “Why wouldn’t I want to say to you, ‘We have a potent new way in which we can drive ratings?’

But “it just isn’t true”, he added. “I am saying the emperor wears no clothes. It is what it is. These are the numbers.”

Looks like someone’s poking a big hole in Twitter’s plan for being the social network for television. But in this case, Wurtzel, and possibly even Twitter have framed the argument incorrectly.

Twitter’s value doesn’t lie in sending views back to television. That is solely achieved by how good the show is and how rabid the fan base is. Twitter, much like Facebook or a newspaper is simply a platform of communication. It needs to be treated like any other publisher. It’s important to remember that the platform itself doesn’t do anything, it’s what people on it are saying that matters. And Twitter could have as much of an effect as regular news sites, bloggers and fan pages. Ultimately Wurtzel is right, good shows drive good ratings, which drive good conversation on Twitter. It doesn’t flow back in the opposite direction.

However, what Wurtzel is missing is the real value of Twitter, which plays host to rabid fan bases and communities. Through its TV Targeting feature, Twitter is giving TV networks, and more importantly their advertisers access to those communities. It’s a guaranteed audience of people who they know will watch a TV show every week. And now they know what that audience looks like, where they live, and what their interests are. For TV networks, it’s crucial information to cultivate another fan base and for advertisers, its a valuable group to target its messaging to, hitting them with a one-two punch of a TV commercial (which they know the show fans will have watched) and a following up with a Promoted Tweet or Promoted Account to cash in on that engagement.

That’s the argument Twitter needs to be making, especially if it wants to keep Wall Street happy. But when it comes to claiming that it drives up ratings, it’s a clear case of confusing correlation with cause, and it simply doesn’t have the numbers to back it up.

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