She was a Q & A Tweet Screen Star

Q&A attracts up to 20,000 tweets an episode, more than ABC staff can read.

RUDE interruption or invitation to take part? The tweets that glide along the bottom of the television screen during episodes of Q&A continue to divide viewers.

For such a new technology, Peter McEvoy, the executive producer of Q&A, uses a simple analogy to explain why certain tweets make it to the small screen while others remain unseen.

‘'It’s like a rapidly moving river,’‘ he says. ’‘We have two moderators who look at the entire stream and they throw a bucket in and pull out suitable tweets. Then our senior moderator chooses which tweets appear.’'

Even with such strong competition the best tweet doesn’t always win. That rapid river regularly turns into Niagara Falls, with about 15,000 to 20,000 tweets flooding in during the one-hour program. If the show attracts 18,000 tweets, that’s 300 tweets a minute, or five tweets a second, which might explain why your pithy bon mot never made it upstream. ‘'Even though they’re short, we just couldn’t possibly read them all.’'

McEvoy admits that in the past 12 months, a couple of inappropriate tweets have ‘'slipped’‘ through.

In October last year, when former prime minister John Howard appeared on the show, a tweet appeared requesting someone throw a shoe at him and, from the perspective of viewers at home, it looked as if someone obliged when about a minute or so later a shoe was hurled at Howard.

‘'No one took it very seriously,’‘ McEvoy says. ’‘That tweet didn’t provoke what happened in the studio because audience members don’t see the tweets onscreen. When I went back and looked at the Twitter stream, there were actually dozens of tweets making similar comments.’'

More recently, a tweet about federal Liberal Christopher Pyne resulted in an apology to Pyne from the ABC the next day.

‘'It’s a very quick process because, obviously, the tweets are speaking directly to the conversation,’‘ McEvoy says.

‘'But what we chose to put on the screen should meet ABC standards, not Twitter standards, but you know, as Kevin Rudd, our Foreign Affairs Minister, admitted recently on the show, we all make mistakes.’'

Hosted by Tony Jones, Q&A strives to put viewers, and those who sit in the live audience, in touch with politicians and people of influence.

‘'You ask the questions, they have to answer’‘ is the show’s catchphrase, making Twitter a natural fit for a current affairs program that strives to convey ’‘democracy in action’‘. You can shout at your television set but Twitter gives you a chance of being heard.

It took about 18 months for the Twitter community to embrace the idea.

‘'We ran the the #qanda hash tag onscreen but when people first started tweeting, we didn’t really have a way of moderating them. We knew how it would work in theory but there weren’t any other models to follow, so we had to iron out some bugs,’‘ McEvoy says.

‘'I want the tweets to reflect a wide range of people. That’s what’s so great about it. It gets everyone involved – people with views from the left and right, pro-carbon tax and anti-carbon.’'

Despite attracting myriad voices, a regular gripe is that while thousands of tweets pour in, well-known personalities – such as ethicist Dr Leslie Cannold and Chaser member Chas Licciardello – seem to get more than their fair share of screen time. But McEvoy says Q&A doesn’t play favourites.

‘'They get a run because they send an awful lot of tweets and because people re-tweet them. If people get behind a tweet there’s more chance that tweet will be seen. People do have a role here, they can push some tweets to the top but a good tweet will do that, too.’'

Q&A screens on Monday at 9.35pm on ABC1

Publication history

Q&A tweets divide viewers by Frances Atkinson  The Sydney Morning Herald