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Three Ways to Develop Programme Ideas Using Twitter

Old school twitter client

Photo (C) TVMole


When labouring at the coalface of a development slate, you need as many tools as you can get your hands on to excavate those elusive gems that are eye-catching enough to catch the eye of a commissioning editor. During a Sheffield Doc/Fest 2014 session Dan Biddle (@DanBiddle), Twitter UK’s Head of Broadcast Partnerships, explained how producers can mine Twitter for breaking news stories, research, audience collaboration and marketing.

As you might expect of a digital platform, Twitter is all about the metrics, and has a host of audience user data that reveals information about Twitter users’ lives. For example, mentions of shopping indicate that Sunday is the biggest day for heading to the shops in the UK and more people go for (or talk about going for) a run on a Monday and Tuesday than they do at the end of the week, when the pub beckons.

But how does this help us in development?

1) Be the first to spot breaking news stories

When US Airways flight 1549 crash landed in New York in 2009, Channel 4 commissioner Simon Dickson saw the footage of the aftermath on the news and picked up the phone to Darlow Smithson and commissioned a one-off documentary, Miracle of the Hudson Plane Crash, from the comfort of his home in London.

Today, there would be no need to wait for news crews to be alerted and make it the scene, it’s likely that images will be tweeted from the scene as it happens, giving the savvy producer a head start on pitching a fast-turnaround documentary.

Dan described how the first journalist ‘on the scene’ when a helicopter crashed into the roof of a Glasgow pub in 2013 was US-based ABC reporter who spotted a sudden spike in tweets. The first tweet after the crash came from someone saying how the ceiling had fallen in on a pub; other people started tweeting what they could see unfolding at the scene; a photo was posted of the helicopter on the roof of the pub. The reporter contacted the person who tweeted the photo and asked if he could use it with a credit and the news story was broken to the world.

Here’s how news of the MH17 plane crashed in Ukraine unfolded on social media:

Visit NBCNews.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy


If you are interested in tracking breaking news stories, you can set up a series of filters (via a Twitter client such as Tweetdeck or Hootsuite) for certain words:

  • People tend to swear when reporting an emergency event, so filter for all the profanities  you can think of
  • Add search terms such as ‘bomb’, ‘police’, ‘gun’, ‘dead’ etc to cover all the different kinds of emergencies that might occur
  • Exclude cultural terms and sayings that have nothing to do with the breaking news e.g. ‘walking dead’ and ‘f*ck the police’
  • Include only tweets that have been retweeted 15+ times as these are likely to be more credible and originate from people who are actually at the scene

By using filters in this way, Twitter effectively acts as an early warning system and filters out all the ‘noise’.

2) Use Twitter as a research resource and to find reputable experts

Once you have identified a story or a subject you will want to find contributors or experts. If you work in a specialist area you can follow experts in your area of interest to follow what is going on in their field; you can also get a sense of their stance on a subject by following their tweets and build up a relationship with them long before you need to ask them to contribute to your film.

You can also set up lists of people of special interest; some lists have been created for you. For example, you can research experts in science, technology, engineering and mathematics by following the STEM Academic Tweeters list, which was composed by the London School of Economics.

3) Engage the audience in the story

You could choose to build your whole show around audience interaction via Twitter as happens in Ross Noble: Freewheeling on UKTV channel Dave. In this travel show, he tweeted where he was in the UK and asked people to tweet suggestions of where he should go and what he should do, effectively letting the audience write the script.

Windfall Films, producers of Channel 4’s  D-Day as It Happens (@dday7 #dday7), brought history into the present day by telling the story of D-Day in real time from the point of view of seven real people who were involved in D-Day. They researched their stories via archives, photos, diaries, letters and interviews with relatives and then for 24 hours each ‘person’ tweeted their experiences in their own words (from their letters and diaries). When one of soldiers, Dixie, died in action it was announced by producers posting a SitRep notice on Twitter, which provoked an outpouring of emotion from people who had been following his progress. By using modern technology to tell a historical story they avoided the traditionally staid approach of talking head experts and can engage a brand new audience in the story.

Commissioning editors are often looking for ways to create a lot of  ‘noise’ around their programming. One strategy is to attempt to get the audience to do something in direct response to the programme – easy enough for big shiny floor entertainment shows that rely on audience voting, not so easy for factual programmes where there is no instant on-screen pay-off. The producers of Channel 4’s  Hugh’s Fish Fight  (#fishfight), a show with a campaign at its heart – to protect the world’s oceans – decided to try to galvanize their audience to action during the commerical break. They gave out the twitter handles of the main UK supermarkets and asked the audience to to tweet the question “What are your prawns eating? #fishfight” during the ad break. They recorded more than 16,000 tweets over 2 minutes, and the supermarkets were forced to respond.

Here is Dan explaining more, during a presentation at MIP (frustratingly the camera doesn’t always capture the images on the screen that illustrate what he’s talking about):


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