Inside Twitter's TV Push: Morning Shows, Live Sports and News-Driven Fare

Illustration by: Rami Niemi

The social network boosts its live video business by 300 percent as advertisers test its slate: "There's an audience already talking about what's happening."

Does Twitter want to be a TV network? A new crop of live programming on the social network certainly seems to indicate that it does.

Over the past several months, the platform better known as the place to read the latest musings of the American president or to share thoughts on last night's Scandal also has become home to a growing slate of current event-centric shows and live sports that are not only driving conversations but also attracting interest from advertisers. During the third quarter of this year alone, Twitter is expected to broadcast some 2,000 hours of live programming, according to BTIG estimates, up from just over 500 hours of programming during the fourth quarter last year. Driving that growth are shows like BuzzFeed's AM to DM, which streams live every weekday morning for an hour, and Circuit Breaker, a weekly gadget review show from Vox Media that debuted Oct. 3. Twitter also streams live sporting events including WNBA games, and a 24/7 channel from Bloomberg is in the works.

"We think we have a unique medium, where there's an audience already talking about what's happening, and we're building a video experience on top of that to strengthen that discussion," says Twitter COO Anthony Noto.

Indeed, the shows that are working best on Twitter are those that leverage conversations taking place on the platform. To wit, Talk the Thrones, the Game of Thrones aftershow produced by Bill Simmons' The Ringer that was canceled at HBO after one season, averaged nearly 600,000 unique live viewers per episode across the eight weeks it streamed this summer. "A reaction show makes the most sense for us to do on Twitter," says Ringer president Eric Weinberger, who notes that a midseason show that aired on a Thursday night reached around the same number of viewers as its Sunday night, post-Game of Thrones shows. "That's where the conversation is immediately after Thrones airs."

Despite lagging user growth (Twitter reported 328 million monthly active users in July), shows have the potential to reach viewers who don't have an account via Twitter's TV app and video player, which can be embedded into web pages. That has been enough to draw interest from advertisers like Verizon (Talk the Thrones) and Wendy's (AM to DM). Toyota, meanwhile, has signed on as the presenting sponsor for daily pop culture news show #WhatsHappening from Ben Silverman and Howard T. Owens' Propagate, which premiered Oct. 9. In most cases, Twitter is sharing ad revenue with its partners.

"They are working closely with us to figure out how this makes sense for our business," says Melissa Bell, the publisher for Vox Media, which streams several MMA-themed shows on Twitter in addition to Circuit Breaker and an upcoming show from its Polygon brand. 

While streaming video platforms such as Netflix, Facebook and YouTube are taking on television (and in the case of YouTube and Facebook, going after TV-sized ad budgets), Noto acknowledges that Twitter can be an important companion to the television experience. For that reason, he says Twitter isn't going after exclusive rights to existing programming, but focusing on original or complementary programming in areas where it knows it has large audiences, such as sports and entertainment. "We're not trying to disrupt or replace anyone," he says. "We're trying to be a complement to media companies and help them reach an audience they wouldn't otherwise reach."

A version of this story first appeared in the Oct. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.