The Race to Become the New EPG for Media

programguideI wrote not too long ago about Facebook’s potential to become the new Electronic Programming Guide for our digital world. People check Facebook an average of 14 times per day to see “what’s on” in their lives, and they spend one in four minutes of their small-screen time looking for things to Like, click, or comment on. For hundreds of millions of people, Facebook has become the destination of first resort when they have time to go nowhere in particular.

But when it comes to supplanting the good ol’ TV Guide-style program grid in directing our media diets, there are increasing signs that Twitter could get there first.

While Facebook has been building a content strategy in fits and starts, Twitter has been remarkably determined and consistent in its moves toward becoming a hub for all of our entertainment needs. Did you know that the fifth season of Modern Family premieres next week? Have you heard the new Britney single? Are you up on the latest Silicon Valley deal? If you logged on to Twitter at all today, the answer is most likely yes.

You might counter that the same could be said for Facebook — but the chatter only goes so far. Facebook contacts may throw out just as many hot tips; but because of Facebook’s decision not to prioritize third-party content partnerships, those hot tips send users away with a link instead of encouraging media consumption within the Facebook platform itself. That’s where Twitter pulls ahead: It’s actively making deals with key content providers to build out the media experience for users on the Twitter platform.

Partnerships with iTunes, Rdio and Spotify are a key component of Twitter #Music, an app launched this spring that plays entire tracks (that you discover via your social graph) instantly on demand. As for news, Twitter has long maintained a good relationship with journalists; now that it’s hiring a Head of News and Journalism, we can expect an even bigger build-out of the Twitter news experience in the near future.

But it’s in television that Twitter has made the greatest strides — and sees the greatest potential. Partnerships with ESPN, NCAA, NBA, Nascar and MLB (to name just a few) brought video clips from live sports into your Twitter stream, and a recent deal with Viacom allows certain networks to tweet show highlight clips along with video ads to their followers. And this is most certainly only the beginning: This year’s acquisition of Bluefin Labs and the high-profile hiring of Google’s Jennifer Prince signal that Twitter is gearing up to become a much, much stronger force in television going forward.

In fact, we don’t even need to read between the lines: CEO Dick Costolo has been very vocal about his second-screen ambitions. He sees Twitter as a natural complement to real-time viewing — and that’s where it gets interesting.

Most new technologies in the last decade (TiVo, Netflix, Hulu) have encouraged the trend toward “off-lining”: watch what you want, when you want it. But Twitter reverses the flow: Activity on Twitter actually drives real-time television viewer tune-in. It makes sense; if all of your Twitter friends are quipping about the new episode of “Real Housewives” as it airs, you’re much more likely to turn on the TV so you can join in the conversation.

The tune-in effect has often been a talking point for Twitter execs in attempts to woo television advertisers, but a recent independent study from Nielsen actually confirms the phenomenon: An increase in Twitter commentary about a show can cause a statistically significant increase in ratings for that show.

This is a big deal for television in a time of declining ratings, and it’s a very big deal for Twitter. Twitter is the only one to come close to making social TV a reality, and recasting the Internet as friend rather than foe to the television industry. And that is powerful.

Unlike Facebook, Twitter is building a long-term, symbiotic (the data says!) relationship with the major networks. And the more Twitter can entwine itself with television, the better for its bottom line: the biggest advertising spend today still belongs to TV, and no new digital media company has been able to siphon a sizable share. Twitter just might be the one to bridge that gap.

With hundreds of channels on the cable dial, thousands of news outlets, tens of thousands of films available for streaming, and an almost infinite number of other entertainment options online today, media companies are having a hell of a tough time competing for audience attention — and consumers are similarly challenged with an overabundance of choices. The more Twitter can direct users to “what’s on” based on its interest graph, the more valuable the platform will be to all parties involved.

The next link in the evolutionary chain of mass media will be a technology that helps us navigate the whole digital media landscape — one that combines the best of TV, books, radio, movies and news with data about your personal interests and preferences. Twitter certainly has a ways to go yet, but if it continues to work side by side with the most important content providers, it has a strong shot at becoming the new EPG: Our go-to destination for all of our media-hungry moments.

This is a guest post by Ben Elowitz (@elowitz), co-founder and CEO of next-generation media company Wetpaint, and author of the Digital Quarters blog about the future of digital media. Prior to Wetpaint, Elowitz co-founded Blue Nile.

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