Post-Water-Cooler TV? Not Yet: The Real World Still Trumps Twitter

Most talk about TV is still face-to-face… which gives us time to work on our online etiquette

Last Updated: July 16, 2014 @ 3:39 PM

Where do you have your best talks about TV? On Twitter or Facebook? Or live, face-to-face?

Your real-world interactions may make you feel hopelessly out of date. But you aren't, not yet. The overwhelming majority of conversations about TV – and perhaps even conversations about other things – still take place in the real world.

Also read: 'Sharknado' Vs. 'Under the Dome' and the Limits of Twitter

A New York Times story Sunday drew together six showrunners to talk about "Post-Water-Cooler TV," an era in which shows need to deal with constant online feedback. It's a great read about a bold idea: the death of the water cooler, where co-workers once rehydrated and talked about last night's "Breaking Bad."

"I haven’t seen a water cooler since I was a kid," says one of the Times' panelists, "House of Cards" writer Beau Willimon. He adds that a conversation about a shared TV experience is just as valid on Twitter as in real life.

Also read: 'Breaking Bad': The Case for Why It Isn't Good

Sure it is. But real ones still count, too.

As CBS noted at the Television Critics Association summer press tour, 80 percent of TV word-of-mouth still takes place in person. And those interactions may carry more weight. As CBS noted, in one extreme example, "Sharknado" buried "Under the Dome" in Twitter talk, but the "Dome" destroyed the flying sharks in actual viewers.

Think about it: Do you take a recommendation more seriously when it flies past on Twitter, or when it comes from a person you know, standing in front of you? (When an IT guy I barely knew at my old job told me I just had to watch "The IT Crowd," a show I knew nothing about, I did. Because I knew I would be at his mercy the next time my machine crashed.)

Also read: 'The Walking Dead': 4 Things Networks Can Learn From the Cable Show That's Beating Them

Though the Times' panel focused on online feedback, one anecdote underscored how powerful a face-to-face interaction can be.

"Good Wife" showrunners Robert and Michelle King were asked whether Twitter feedback affected a plotline involving the character Kalinda. No, they said.

"What had an effect was that one of our writers went into a coffee shop and a man confronted him and said: “Don’t mess with Kalinda. It’s not about me. My wife is giving you hell."

Also read: Emmys: 'Boardwalk Empire' Gets Those Gorgeous Costumes Bloody

That's right: One comment in a coffee shop made it back to the writer's room of one of television's most acclaimed shows, and was repeated in one of the world's most influential newspapers. The Times' story has been retweeted hundreds of times, giving a single comment both a face-to-face and online impact.

Of course not every plea has such an echo. To maximize your influence, it might be a good idea to find out where your favorite writers get their coffee and – nevermind. Maybe don't do that. 

But one lesson from the feedback might be not to change too much. Making too desperate a play for Twitter may one day seem as dated as Smell-o-Vision. The key to making a great show is still making a great show. "Breaking Bad" showrunner Vince Gilligan has joked that he only uses the internet for porn.

"I’ve never written a letter, or an e-mail, or a tweet about anything," said "Boardwalk Empire" showrunner Terence Winter, another Times panelist. "Maybe I’m just lazy, but I think the vast majority of people who are watching aren’t saying anything. They’re just watching the show. Are we letting that tail of the Twitter users wag the dog that is the show?"

That would be bad. But letting the dog wag the tail is good. Especially when it's the long tail.

Former "Walking Dead" showrunner Glen Mazzara has talked about how the internet has reduced the need for exposition on the show. When fans are confused about some detail, they work it out together online.

"Our audience communicates with each other," Mazzara told TheWrap last year. "And they have access to all the actors through Twitter. … They're smart. They don't need to be spoon-fed."

But with the power of feedback comes responsibility.

Earlier this year I interviewed Steve Buscemi, the star of "Boardwalk." I asked him how playing a TV character was different from one in a movie. He said a show was different because his character is a continual work in progress, and that he tries to avoid online chatter that might change his portrayal while it's still underway.

"I've read some of the stuff that came out in the first season, but I just thought, it's not good to read anything, good or bad," Buscemi said. "In the end, it's not that helpful."

And yet there I was, five feet away, asking questions that might betray some opinion about his character. What if, for some reason, he cared what I said? What if it made him second-guess himself? He had built a bubble, and who was I to break it?

On Twitter, any of us can potentially puncture the bubble. The burden isn't just on the people inside it, but on us, the viewers. Tweet with care.


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