Twitter: Savior Of Crappy Television?

Two Twitter-loving media critics wonder whether we should mourn or rejoice

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Few subjects attract as much anxious criticism and fanboy delight from media critics as Twitter. This week, two great media commentators took the bait again, and coincidentally addressed the same startling question: could Twitter save TV?

In dueling columns, James Poniewozik of Time and the New York Time's David Carr give positive answers to the question. Both discover that, instead of supplanting television, social media services like Twitter seem to be giving viewers a reason to come back. Poniewozik marvels that television programs "have been dramatically and conspicuously not dying." Instead, viewership for the 2010 Super Bowl bested the record set by the M*A*S*H finale, and awards shows have been thriving. For his part, Carr approvingly cites his colleague's idea that Twitter is turning into a "wingman" for television, allowing viewers to chat, gripe, and swoon over programs in real time.

Carr and Poniewozik agree that the interactive nature of social media is to thank: a strong current of commentary and criticism can keep even the most vacuous and insipid television buoyant. After all, Poniewozik notes, the decline of "water-cooler" TV simply leave room for another social space to gab: the "Twittercooler."

Facebook, Twitter et al., it turns out, are perfect for watching big events in a virtual living room of dozens — or thousands — of your closest fellow couch potatoes. ... It's doubtful people tuned in by the millions to see the Oscars' interpretative-dance number, in which performers did the robot to the score of Up. Or maybe they did, but to make fun of it together. (In a way, social media are better for bad TV than for good TV, like ketchup on a mediocre burger.) ...

Social media enhance rather than replace events like the Oscars and — important when DVRs let people record shows and skip the ads — make watching them in real time worthwhile so people can be in on the conversation. Because as much as we like to watch, we like to talk.

But is it a good thing for television and social media to go hand-in-hand? Poniewozik thinks so, though he notes it's mainly the biggest shows that are seeing a boost. He relates a parable for old media in the convergence of television and Twitter: "There's a simple lesson here ... As no less an old-media guy than longtime CBS chief Leslie Moonves told the New York Times, 'The Internet is our friend, not our enemy.'"

Carr does seem ambivalent about the fact that Twitter gives users an excuse to watch bad TV, allowing them to "pretend" they're not "wallowing in low culture."
But something more powerful, and probably less intimate than having a laugh with your pals, is under way. The act of typing is an intellectual one and creates a distance on the part of the viewer: social media lets us pretend we’re not wallowing in low culture...That adds up to a lot of people saying they watch “Dancing With the Stars” not because they enjoy it but because they’re really amateur cultural anthropologists.
New media may save rather than replace the old. But is this something we really want? "Either way," as Carr writes "the audience adds up."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.