Each generation of media has an oedipal relationship with the last. New technologies are born radio, TV, the Internet and either kill what came before or render it less relevant. Just so for years, the story of big-network TV has been how it's slowly losing out to cable, video games and the Web.
But a funny thing has been happening with big TV events of late: they have been dramatically and conspicuously not dying. The 2010 Super Bowl was the most watched U.S. TV show ever, surpassing the finale of M*A*S*H. This year's Olympics far outrated the 2006 Games. The Emmys, Grammys and Golden Globes all increased, and on March 7, about 41 million people watched the Oscars, 5 million more than last year.
There may be plenty of reasons for the higher Oscars ratings: a blockbuster (Avatar) was nominated; there were twice as many Best Picture nominees; Twilight's dreamboat stars were trotted out like a big undead parade; and in a lousy economy, free TV is a cheap date. But another reason may be the likes of Twitter and Facebook new media that aren't replacing TV but creating a new way to watch it.
Along with the decline of evening-news, drama and sitcom ratings, the fall of watercooler TV has been playing out for years. When that happens, you can try to make better TV. Or you can find a better watercooler.
Now we have 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.
Ever since people started buying 56K modems, we've seen goofy attempts at TV-Internet convergence, from play-at-home websites for game shows to Internet-shopping tie-ins. But the kind of convergence people really want is dishing about Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin's duologue with their Facebook friends. 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.)
We call things like Facebook social media, but contrary to its image, TV is also inherently social, at least when it comes to big games, big galas or American Idol finales. People throw parties around it; they watch it to be able to talk to other people about it. 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.
We also love to talk back. This year, the Oscars' In Memoriam clip reel conspicuously ignored the passing of Farrah Fawcett; within moments, Farrah Fawcett was a top phrase on Twitter's real-time "trending topics" list. When an unidentified woman Kanye'd the Best Documentary Short director, barging onstage and taking the mike as he gave his acceptance speech, viewers were baffled unless they were following Twitter, whose hive mind quickly deduced that she was the film's producer, kept from accepting the award after a falling-out.
On TV alone, the Oscars show was the usual gala of stars, thank-yous and back-patting. On social-media platforms, it was a conversation about fashion (what is J. Lo wearing?), race (why do they cut to Morgan Freeman every time Precious wins an award?) and politics (Fox News paranoiac Glenn Beck tweeted that Avatar vs. The Hurt Locker was "an anti US/human movie against an anti US/Troops movie"). TV with Twitter is like an instant DVD commentary.
Social media aren't a panacea for the TV business; ordinary, nonevent shows are still losing viewers to video games, DVDs and every other modern distraction and niche offering. Rather, it seems that mostly the biggest shows are getting bigger.
But there's a simple lesson here, not just for TV but also for the rest of old media, including print. 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." Yes, new technologies can change old institutions and sometimes end them. But they can also enhance old media and even help those of us in the contentmaking business do our jobs. (I kicked around ideas for this column by checking in with TV fans who were following my Twitter feed, twitter.com/poniewozik.
At the least, TV's Twittercooler dividend suggests one thing for old-media folks wrestling with the problem of new media: don't look at it as a problem. Social media have turned the world into one big living room. The future belongs to those who pull up a chair.