Current A-Twitter with Debate Hacking

Sprinkling a little Twitter dust on your broadcast is the hot new trend in television. Both Current and C-SPAN have displayed “tweets” alongside their political coverage, and CNN’s Rick Sanchez created a news show based around Twitter.

Showing watcher tweets on the air doesn’t make you truly interactive, but it’s a nice start. In the first month of his new show, Sanchez increased his time slot’s audience by 25 percent, to almost 900,000 viewers. And for Current TV, the progressive cable network that has yet to make a big mainstream splash, its “Hack the Debate” Twitter project has been a huge breakthrough.

Over at Current TV headquarters, which happen to be just around the corner from our office, folks were beaming with excitement when I visited them just before and during the final presidential debate last night. See my annotated video of the scene above.

Current isn’t rated on TV, but it says its pleased by other measures of the broadcast, like being the No. 1 keyword used on Twitter during the debates. Oh, and it got lots of press attention for the project, helped along in part by an appearance from Current co-founder Al Gore at the first debate.

Current’s always trying to combine web sensibilities and TV distribution, but it hasn’t always made a ton of sense. For instance, a Digg-like revamp of Current.com, built to solicit new on-air stories, alienated contributing video producers.

The “Hack the Debate” project worked a lot better from the start. For the project, Current used Ruby on Rails to suck in keywords from the Twitter API, and built a Flash display that acted like an additional camera in its San Francisco control room where it was overlaid on the video feed before being sent up to the satellites. During each debate, Current used a team of editors and a lawyer to find the most topical and FCC standards-compliant tweets (though apparently, Current staffers told me last night, the username “Chewbacca” did slip through, a no-no as the term is owned by Lucasfilm). The fastest a tweet could travel from submission on Twitter to airing on Current was 20 seconds.

Current did try to air as many tweets as possible, with some 2,700 tweets making it to TV over the course of each debate. That made it nearly impossible, and a little stressful, to try read each of them. Also, in a somewhat out-of-character move, the channel also tried to make its tweet selections somewhat politically balanced.

So is this what TV of the future will be like? It’s a sign of confidence from Current that the company’s chief architect, Ofer Shaked, said last night he is going to become CTO of the whole shop, overseeing both Current.com and Current TV.

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