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NBC Pokes a Hole in Twitter's TV Story

"The emperor wears no clothes." Uh oh.

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Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

You know how Twitter is supposed to be TV’s friend?

Things look a little less congenial today.

That’s after a pointed article in the Financial Times, where a top NBC executive says that Twitter’s most important selling point to the TV industry — “We’ll deliver eyeballs to your shows” — hasn’t panned out.

That’s a red flag for Twitter, which has been trying to create a symbiosis with the TV Industrial Complex for years, and is selling that link to investors as well.

But there’s no there there, says NBCUniversal* research chief Alan Wurtzel.

He comes to that conclusion after looking at the effect of Twitter, as well as Facebook, on NBCU’s ratings during the Winter Olympics. Wurtzel saw lots of chatter about Sochi on social media, but none of that seemed to translate to increased viewership.

The crucial quotes from Wurtzel, relayed by the FT’s Emily Steel: “Why wouldn’t I want to say to you, ‘We have a potent new way in which we can drive ratings?’” But “it just isn’t true,” he added. “I am saying the emperor wears no clothes. It is what it is. These are the numbers.”

The FT piece has plenty of caveats, and notes that it may be possible that Twitter is increasing eyeballs for programming that reaches smaller audiences — it’s easier to have more impact when you’re starting with a lower base.

And Twitter has previously pointed to research from Nielsen that said that in some cases, it thinks that Twitter has some effect — though it couldn’t say how much — on ratings.

But bear in mind that until now NBCU, like many other TV networks, has been an enthusiastic partner with Twitter. Last year the programmer and its parent company Comcast announced a “strategic partnership” that was supposed to tie the pay TV provider and its networks directly into Twitter, by giving Comcast subscribers the ability to record shows directly from Twitter, and even watch them using the service.

“We want to make the conversation on Twitter lead to consumption,” said Sam Schwartz, Comcast’s chief business development officer, at the time.

The best spin on this for Twitter (as well as Facebook, which has been playing catch-up when it comes to pitching itself to TV) is that there’s no reason for the TV guys to stop playing nicely with Twitter: It costs very little to experiment, and if they can find some way to make the service deliver on its promise, then it’s worth the effort.

And perhaps Twitter can find other metrics that programmers, and their advertisers, value beyond ratings. Maybe they can argue that Twitter keeps TV viewers more “engaged.”

But Twitter has made its TV ties a central part of its pitch to advertisers — it’s one of the reasons it’s on track to do more than $1 billion in revenue this year, despite user growth issues. And Twitter has used that story to help sell itself to Wall Street. If it doesn’t pan out, that’s a real problem.

*NBCUniversal is a minority investor in Revere Digital, the owner of Re/code.

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