David Zurawik

Call 2012 the year that TV got social

Call 2012 the year that TV got social -- real social.

And if you want the moment of moments, it came in the first debate between President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, when someone created the #SaveBigBird hashtag on Twitter after the GOP challenger said he wanted to cut funding for "Sesame Street."

Talk about losing the battle but winning the war. Even though the president got hammered during that debate in the minds of most viewers, the social media seeds were sown that would make his opponent the ultimate loser, as that hashtag and others from subsequent debates helped shape the perception of Romney as insensitive and out of touch.

It was in some ways as transformative a media moment as the night of the 1960 presidential debate, when John F. Kennedy was deemed the winner over Richard Nixon by those who watched TV's first presidential debate — while radio listeners were convinced that Nixon had triumphed.

If that seminal debate ushered in the age of TV politics, as many analysts say, then perhaps this year's debates helped usher it out. Or, at least, they helped usher us into a new hybrid era of TV and social media — with Twitter and Facebook allowing viewers to talk back to television as they never have before.

Of course, television and social media have been coming together for years, with viewers watching on TV screens and interacting in response to the shows on Facebook or Twitter via computers or mobile devices. But this year was different in quantity, if nothing else. A tipping point was definitely reached.

Viewers generated 874 million TV-related comments in social media this year — up 363 percent from the 189 million in 2011, according to Bluefin Labs, a Boston-based firm that specializes in social media analytics.

The Grammy Awards show, for example, grew 2,280 percent year to year — generating 13 million comments in social media during the 2012 telecast on CBS.

"Dual screeners" is the term the Pew Research Center coined in its efforts to measure and describe the shift in the way many are now watching multiple screens simultaneously. "Social TV" is the terminology Bluefin uses to describe "people actively engaging with television shows and commercials via social media in real time."

"In the pre-Internet era, you had morning-after polls," Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project, said in an interview with The Baltimore Sun after the first debate. "But now we've got these new tools where you can watch millions of people have real conversations in real time."

William Powers, director of The Crowdwire, a Bluefin Labs project analyzing the role of social media in the 2012 presidential race, said he saw a "new symbiosis between Twitter and the news media" in the use of hashtags based on things said in the debates.

The result is a near-instant news cycle driven by editors seeing hashtags go viral and then ordering up stories based on the hashtags — in effect, validating those hashtags and shaping the news budget.

"It's like a new cycle is happening that we don't even have a word for yet," he said in a Sun interview in October before anyone else seemed to notice how Twitter was driving morning-after mainstream media coverage. "It's changing the whole process."

Nor was it limited to TV politics.

According to Bluefin, 35,000 comments were issued in the first minute — minute — of the Season 3 premiere of "The Walking Dead" on AMC. The New York Giants' Super Bowl victory drew 158,000 comments a minute at its peak, while the Grammy show generated 135,000 comments a minute when Adele's "21" was named Album of the Year.

The conversation was often raw and angry, as when 36 million people shared some very unhappy comments about NBC's coverage of the Summer Olympics — particularly those related to tape-delayed telecasts of major events like swimming so that NBC could maximize prime-time viewing.

No one needed to commission a poll to find out how millions of viewers felt about tape-delayed sporting events in a real-time, on-demand day and age. The unfiltered comments were out there every night and day on Twitter during the competition.

Beyond the presidential debates, election night, the Olympics, Grammys and Super Bowl, some of the most dramatic and game-changing media moments of the year came when TV and social media were mixed in new and unexpected ways. One of the most bizarre took place last month in Baltimore, when a 47-year-old cabdriver and citizen journalist refused to allow police to serve a warrant on him and then webcast and live-tweeted the ensuing standoff from the basement of his Waverly home after a SWAT team arrived.

Frank James MacArthur, aka @baltimorespectator, was tweeting live for more than five hours, much of it spent talking to a police negotiator, before surrendering peacefully just before 11 p.m. saying, "All right, it's 10:57. Network news comes on at 11. Let's wrap this up for the networks. I'm headed out."

Making it even more of a strange media brew, one of the people MacArthur said he was exchanging tweets with was Roland Martin, an analyst on CNN. MacArthur said at one point in his live webcast that he needed to delay his surrender so he could respond to a message from Martin. MacArthur had been responding and commenting throughout the webcast to what others were saying about him on Twitter.

It truly was a new kind of prime-time crime drama, even for Baltimore, a city that has pretty much seen it all when it comes to crime and TV police dramas. MacArthur might have thought he was surrendering in time to seize the top of the 11 p.m. newscast, but the story was already mostly over by the time it got to TV, thanks to social media.

Surely one of the most troubling intersections of social media and television occurred this month, when most of the cable channels and broadcast news networks identified the wrong man as the shooter who killed 20 children at an elementary school in Connecticut.

The national TV media identified 24-year-old Ryan Lanza as the perpetrator of one of the most heinous crimes imaginable, when it was actually his younger brother, 20-year-old Adam, who shot the children and then himself.

Buzzfeed, Slate and Huffington Post linked to Ryan Lanza's Facebook page with language suggesting he might be the shooter. His Facebook page was shared more than 1,000 times a minute in the immediate wake of those links.

CBS, NBC, Fox and ABC identified him as the shooter as well, and this went on all afternoon — even as Ryan Lanza, who was supposed to be dead, according to cable and network TV, was using a mobile device to plead his innocence via posts on his Facebook page:


"I'm on the bus home now it wasn't me."

"[Expletive] you CNN it wasn't me."

Call it the year that TV got social — and social media showed users how to really talk back to television.