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How Twitter is taking over your TV - and you’re helping

Actor Taylor Kinney was locatifor filming scene for 'Chicago Fire' Waukegan Thursday. | Ryan Pagelow~Sun-Times Media

Actor Taylor Kinney was on location for filming a scene for "Chicago Fire" in Waukegan on Thursday. | Ryan Pagelow~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: November 28, 2013 6:24AM

When “Chicago Fire” comes on at 9 p.m. Tuesdays, co-creator and executive producer Derek Haas does two things: He tunes in to the NBC drama and logs on to Twitter.

“People are quoting lines, gasping at whatever the surprise is, throwing back at you guesses about what’s going to happen,” said Haas, whose @popcornhaas Twitter handle has nearly 9,600 followers. “It’s like getting to watch it with all of your friends crammed together in one room.”

Crammed indeed. “Chicago Fire’s” Twitter engagement — measured by retweets and mentions of the show’s official @NBCChicagoFire handle, which has sent more than 650 tweets since September’s season two premiere — is up 46 percent since the season one finale, according to the network.

On Tuesday nights, #ChicagoFire frequently trends in the top spot on Twitter thanks in no small part to the cast’s penchant for live-tweeting episodes and responding to fans’ social media missives.

“I had no idea two years ago that Twitter was going to be this big of a deal,” said Haas, who takes to the microblogging site every Wednesday and Sunday morning to answer the first 10 or so questions that pop up in his feed.

With 49 million active U.S. users and more than 200 million worldwide, Twitter has helped change the way we watch television, turning a traditionally passive experience into an active one. A growing number of folks are flocking to the little blue bird to talk TV. It’s a migration pattern that hasn’t gone unnoticed by shows, networks, advertisers or Nielsen.

The ratings company recently rolled out a new reporting system to measure Twitter’s TV-related reach — a reach the San Francisco-based company needs to be far and wide to drive ad revenue and appeal to investors as it prepares to go public next month with its stock.

The number of tweets about live TV shot up 38 percent in a year, from 190 million in the second quarter of 2012 to 263 million for the same time period this year, according to a Nielsen survey released this month.

The ranks of people tweeting about TV also swelled 24 percent to 19 million.

Nielsen estimates that nearly half of adults ages 25 to 34 visit a social network such as Twitter or Facebook while watching television.

“There’s a lot of second-screen — sometimes triple-screen — experience going on,” said Jennifer Hoppenstedt, executive producer of news and social media for ABC-owned WLS-Ch. 7. She’s been with the city’s top-rated TV news outlet for 20 years, but social media only recently became part of her job description.

“We really started putting formal efforts into it a year ago,” Hoppenstedt said. “We’re putting the news where people are most likely to see it, and that’s Twitter and Facebook. It’s paid off.”

The station’s Twitter handle @ABC7Chicago had fewer than 20,000 followers last year. It now has three times that. Its popularity on Facebook increased more than tenfold to 300,000-plus fans.

“In the last six months what’s changed the most is an influx of tips coming in to us through Facebook and Twitter,” she said. “We’ve had lots of user-generated content. When the plane went down in Bolingbrook, we got videos and pictures faster than ever.”

Producers of Ch. 7’s morning talk show “Windy City Live” felt strongly enough about social media to put a face on it. Since the show’s 2011 debut, contributor Ji Suk Yi can be seen on set with her laptop open.

“We always start the show off with what’s trending on Twitter,” Yi said. “At the end of the show we reserve the last two minutes for feedback, reading whatever tweets and posts on Facebook we think are pertinent.

“Our big thing is engagement because it’s not a single screen anymore,” she added. “Everyone’s on their phone or they have an iPad in their lap.”

That has turned sites like Twitter into a virtual water cooler for TV conversation. Fans can weigh in on a program in real time and boost ratings in the process.

A Nielsen report in August revealed a link between tweets and added eyeballs for live TV shows. The minute-by-minute analysis found that the volume of tweets caused “significant changes” in 29 percent of the 221 prime time programs studied.

But just because a show is wildly popular on Twitter doesn’t mean it’s a ratings powerhouse.

“If you followed Twitter
. . . then you would think that ‘Pretty Little Liars’ is the most-watched show on television, and it may be with the very narrow group of young women who are obsessed with that show and are probably also obsessed with Twitter,” CBS chief researcher David Poltrack told TV critics at their annual summer meeting in Beverly Hills, Calif.

While the blue bird’s chirp might be bigger than its chomp, Poltrack added that the Twitter “phenomenon is going to grow” and “we are immersing ourselves in it.”

CBS churned out some 50 percent more tweets around its September programming this year compared with the same period last year. Cast members of 18 CBS series live-tweeted during premiere week, posting behind-the-scenes photos and Vine videos, interacting with viewers and giving away swag on Twitter.

When it comes to using Twitter to drum up support for a TV show, the crown goes to ABC’s soapy political drama “Scandal.”

The network-run account @ScandalABC waged a monthlong campaign during the summer built around the hashtag #ScandalRecruitment, giving existing fans — known as #gladiators — 30 reasons to recruit new viewers before October’s season three premiere. Followers were encouraged to simulataneously watch specific reruns on DVD or streaming services like Netflix and sound off with the hashtag #ScandalRewatch. The series also used a “flock to unlock” strategy, promising to release a portion of the script if enough fans retweeted when asked.

“Scandal” returned Oct. 3 to a series record of 10.5 million viewers. During the episode, fans shot out 713,000 tweets to a Twitter audience of nearly 3.7 million, landing “Scandal” at the top of the new Nielsen Twitter TV ratings for the week.

“We tweet the H out of our show,” said Highland Park native Jeff Perry, who plays White House Chief of Staff Cyrus Beene on the Thursday night drama.

The co-founder of Steppenwolf Theatre Company admits to being a reformed Luddite who didn’t know what Twitter was pre-“Scandal.” Now he and the rest of the cast routinely live-tweet during episodes.

“It feels grass-rootsy and nice,” Perry said. “I grew up in not-for-profit theater where hundreds of people can make a difference to what you’re doing. I like that connection to the audience.”


Twitter: @lorirackl

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