There is an assumption these days that we should judge a TV show by the volume of tweets it generates. But it is perhaps equally interesting to look at the pattern of tweets and when they were sent because different types of programmes are resulting in very different behaviours.
Take Sunday night's third and final episode in the latest series of Sherlock on BBC1. The headline statistics tell us there were nearly 400,000 tweets in total with a peak of 10,000 tweets per minute. That peak came immediately as the programme finished according to this graph provided by analytics company SecondSync.
Obviously Sherlock was the hottest topic on social media in the UK on Sunday night but clearly a lot of people who were on Twitter on Sunday and who watched Sherlock closed their laptops and put their phones to one side while it was on, giving it the attention it deserved.
A similar pattern can be seen with November's 50th anniversary episode of Doctor Who. There was an additional huge spike of excitement beforehand, followed by the major spike in discussion afterwards but again relative silence during (even if relative silence in both these cases represents a still high level of conversation by normal standards):
Compare this to the pattern generated by a show which has become inextricably linked with the popularity of its 'tweet-a-long' for the thousands who join in, watching the show while sharing their responses and reactions with friends and followers on Twitter throughout. Question Time on BBC1 generates relatively low numbers of tweets, from relatively few tweeters compared to the likes of Sherlock, but it provides a very clear pattern, entirely different to the above. There is little chatter before or after but a sustained, consistent level of activity throughout - what we might expect the pattern of typical 'second screen' activity to look like:
The phenomenon of the second screen 'tweet-a-long' is perhaps most closely associated with shows such as X Factor, having given thousands of viewers a reason to tune in to a show they might otherwise avoid. X Factor too creates this mound of tweets during the broadcast, however ITV programmes clearly lose some momentum at regular intervals due to ad breaks, evident on the graph for the X Factor results show:
Some other patterns throw up contrasting insights into the way Twitter shapes and reflects what we watch. While the X Factor results show built to an obvious – understandable - spike towards the end of the broadcast, other shows peak far earlier.
Take the launch of the new series of Celebrity Big Brother on Channel 5 when viewers tuned in to see which questionable 'celebrities' were going into the house and tweeted about it in their thousands. Interest on Twitter hit a peak about 25 minutes into the two hour broadcast, around the time Dappy from pop group N-Dubz was being handcuffed to Daily Mail columnist Liz Jones:
A final pattern found while scouring SecondSync's many charts and graphs relates to a Channel 4 documentary from August 2013 entitled Crazy About One Direction in which fans of One Direction revealed often disturbing levels of obsession with the boy band and its members. The pattern hints at Twitter's ability to recruit viewers.
Although viewing figures for the documentary were low at around 500,000, the longer it went on the more people were tweeting about it. In total around a quarter of its total viewers had tweeted about it. It's easy to imagine therefore that those viewing figures would have been far lower without people being drawn in by the Twitter conversation once the programme was on.
From around 500 tweets per minute at the start of the programme it grew over the course of an hour to around 6,000 tweets per minute - 60 per cent of Sherlock's peak, with just six per cent of Sherlock's audience. What's more, the continued conversation about the programme long after it ended - fuelled in part no doubt by many One Direction fans taking issue with their portrayal - suggests many who had missed the start but were drawn to it by tweets in their timeline, may have started watching it on Channel 4 +1 ("to see what all the fuss is about") and continued tweeting:
The relationship between Twitter and our viewing habits is clearly well-established and broadcasters are all keen to harness the power to recruit and advertise the popularity of their shows.
But it should also be noted - going back briefly to Sherlock and that opening assumption - that the number of people tweeting about Sherlock was still less than two per cent of the total audience who tuned in (perhaps putting Twitter's influence on Crazy About One Direction into even sharper contrast).
The patterns and statistics revealed above may well be the shape of things to come but for now they only tell us how a small, but influential minority of viewers, watch television.