Why Twitter’s move into TV could be a recipe for disaster

There’s been plenty of debate recently about the extent to which Twitter is a media entity and/or a technology business, but there is little question that the company sees its future as controlling more and more of the content that flows through its network — in other words, building walls around the garden of real-time information. And now there are hints that Twitter wants to not just curate or filter content through deals with media players like NBC, but is considering developing its own content: according to AdWeek, it is working with Hollywood players on a TV show or series of shows that would be integrated into the network somehow.
While doing this might appeal to advertisers and bring in revenue, however, it could take Twitter further away from what many users see as its core value.
The AdWeek report says that Twitter is in talks with “multiple Hollywood producers and network execs” about possibly launching several original video series on the network, with at least one show debuting later this year as a proof-of-concept to attract advertisers. The idea is described by “sources with knowledge of the discussions” as being similar to MTV reality shows like The Real World, where participants would presumably interact with viewers via Twitter — and the video content would live on a separate page similar to the NASCAR project Twitter did recently, or the NBC Olympic news hub that is expected to launch soon:

“The show could live on a standalone Twitter page similar to the events page that Twitter launched in partnership with Nascar in June, although the series’ page would more closely resemble a microsite in order to feature an expanded video player. Another possibility is that the series would be distributed within tweets—promoted, organic or pinned to a brand’s Twitter page—with users clicking to expand the tweet into a full-fledged video player.”

A desire for ad revenue could lead Twitter astray

As the AdWeek story makes fairly clear, this effort — which we haven’t yet been able to confirm — would be driven primarily by a desire for advertising revenue. According to the magazine, Twitter is aiming to land sponsorship deals for its original shows that would be in the neighborhood of $4 million a pop. AdWeek says the video features would include “product integration” as well as promoted tweets, and that the idea would be to have Twitter users influencing the content of the show in some fashion (something that has been done at least once before through a partnership with an advertiser).
I confess that when I read this report, my heart sank a little. For me, and I think for many other Twitter users, the network has been an incredibly efficient and increasingly important feed of real-time news from people I am connected with somehow, as well as other sources that are valuable to me — whether it’s reports about the revolutions in Egypt or a tsunami in Japan.
Unfortunately, it seems that being a real-time information utility, as valuable as it might be to me, isn’t valuable enough in terms of the revenue it produces for Twitter, and so the company is looking for other avenues that will translate into a bigger payoff. And that apparently means TV.

As Hunter Walk of YouTube describes in a blog post about Twitter’s evolution, this process — moving from simply being an information utility to being a media entity that controls more and more of the content it distributes — has been driven in part by the venture financing the company has raised, which gives it a private market valuation of more than $8 billion. That translates into a lot of pressure to develop not just a business model, but one that generates relatively massive quantities of revenue and eventually profits, and being an information utility just doesn’t have that kind of money attached to it. Says Walk:

“A Twitter that functions as an open platform charging folks for API usage and a services model is riskier than one which makes basic assumptions about consumer engagement and ad revenue.”

Producing ad-driven content is not Twitter’s core value

Although the AdWeek story is still only speculative, a decision to wade into producing original TV-style content wouldn’t really be that surprising. After all, Twitter already plays a fairly major role in the “second-screen” experience for sporting events or appointment-style shows such as the Academy Awards, with users watching the stream of tweets to get instant commentary on shows, and a big part of its strategy has been to form more partnerships with networks like NBC.
So why not take the next step and move from passive comment stream to active developer or co-producer of a show created specifically for Twitter consumption? And video is definitely where the money is (at least for now) when it comes to digital content.
That said, however, I think moving in that direction — while it could produce some ad revenue for Twitter — might be a critical mistake. It’s not just that other technology companies who have tried to become original-content players in video have failed miserably (with Yahoo being the most obvious example), or that video can be an expensive and time-consuming distraction, in part because Hollywood and the entertainment industry are used to chewing up outsiders and spitting them out.
I think Twitter’s increasing attempts to control more of the content on the network could be fundamentally at odds with its value proposition for many users.
If you use Twitter as a short and fast news-consumption or information-delivery system about topics you care about, are you really interested in seeing promotional tweets for a Twitter-produced television-style reality show in your stream? So far, advertising-related tweets have been relatively benign in terms of their impact on the user experience, but if the company is pouring millions into developing original content, the pressure will be on to expose more people to it — and the signal-to-noise ratio of a stream (which is already an issue for many) will inevitably go down. And in the long run, I think that is a recipe for the kind of disaster we saw with MySpace and Digg.
Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Hans Gerwitz and Refracted Moments