Twitter alive but TV still medium of choice

By John Rentoul

Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

This was the first Twitter election, some commentators declared on Twitter. Oh no it wasn't.

This was the 14th television election in the United States. Ever since 1960, when 61 per cent of households with TVs watched the first televised debate between Richard Nixon and John F Kennedy, presidential campaigns have been fought on what Americans call the tube.

This time, the first debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney attracted the sixth-largest audience in TV debate history - 67 million. The main difference is that a few million more people watched the debate live-streamed on their computers, phones or tablets.

The ratings companies don't collect that information, but CNN, for example, said it recorded 1.2 million live streams of its debate coverage. So the total audience for the first debate could have been as much as 70 million.

Journalists, most of whom are on Twitter, are excited by social media, but the vast majority of the voters still rely on television for their political news, views and advertising. Thus elections are fought on television, and the reporting and commentary that matters is on television. News of polls spread faster than in previous cycles through the medium of Twitter.

Claims made by candidates were reported, disputed and decided within hours, thanks partly to the combination of social media and Google.

The television coverage of election night in particular referred repeatedly to what people were saying or claiming on Twitter.

Early yesterday British TV journalist David Dimbleby commented: "We mustn't mock Twitter. It's the thing of the future."

But he was speaking on television, and Twitter is never going to replace the mass consumption of moving pictures accompanied by synchronised sound.

But journalists use Twitter. For us, it has largely replaced what used to be called the "wire" news services.

Now that is provided by hundreds of thousands of people on Twitter. And it is not just news. It is opinions, expert opinions and fact-checking.

So the election was fought on television, but the commentary was fought on Twitter.Independent

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