Sunday night's premiere of The Amazing Race included a surprise cameo by an unsuspecting and unknown Twitter user. Ryan Storms gave a couple of the show's contestants directions to LAX airport and upon realizing that one of them had left her passport behind tweeted out her information. A fan in Georgia spotted the tweet and directed Storms to the airport to return it. He made it, saved the contestants from being eliminated and in a roundabout way provided a sneak peek into the future of interactive television. The Amazing Race isn't live, but Twitter's helped fold engaged fans into the plot during taping. Why don't more shows leverage Twitter to make TV a more interactive experience? In short, they've tried but people think it's incredibly creepy.
In 2009, Twitter considered launching its own reality TV show. "In this choose your own adventure type journey," the pitch read, "the players rely partially on the influence and knowledge of their Twitter followers and supporters, the strength of their teamwork, and their ambition to advance them from spot to spot." That sounds a lot like what happened on Sunday night except for the fact that The Amazing Race didn't plan on fans getting involved--it just sort of happened. However, the idea of planned interaction frankly frightens Twitter users, especially celebrities. News of Twitter's plans for a reality TV show sparked a user rebellion over privacy, and Twitter's biggest fan in Hollywood, Ashton Kutcher, even threatened to stop tweeting. Others' worried that Twitter-powered TV would just lead to more celebrity-stalking.
Regardless of the backlash, Twitter is dying to become more involved in TV. As Fast Company made clear in their 2010 cover story on Twitter and TV, the potential for Twitter to make money from advertising and sponsorships around live events on TV is tremendous. Twitter has effectively become a comments board for television, and just as journalists continues to try and figure out the right way to integrates comments (or tweets) into their coverage, TV networks are interested in leverage viewers' engagement with their programs on Twitter. "Turns out, not everyone wants to use Twitter on television the same way," Twitter's head of media Chloe Sladden told Fast Company, explaining how the company was using trial and error to see what users groked. "It's anthropology, learning their tribal language. It's better when it's native to you, but you can crack the code if you listen, ask good questions, and care enough to understand."
The Amazing Race example could be a step forward for Twitter's TV dreams. The episode earned enthusiastic reports about the role of Twitter in the show from The New York Times and TODAY. But it also represents both sides of what people found so creepy when Twitter tried reality TV the first time around. Ryan Storms' role in helping the show's contestants pick up their fumble seems serendipitous and fun. It's not creepy because it could happen to anyone. However, the flip side is the super fan in Georgia. If Twitter helps obsessed fans get too close to TV stars, they might take the Ashton Kutcher approach and steer clear.
But as Brian Stelter points out in his Times report, this sort of thing makes the audience feel like they're a part of the show. "I'm joining the Amazing Race!" tweeted Storms after his day helping out the contestants. He'll be a fan for life.