March 26 (Bloomberg) -- A TV channel with 24-hour coverage of the murder trial of athlete Oscar Pistorius has become South Africa’s top news show, with almost 200,000 viewers at peak times in its first week, the broadcaster says.
Compare that to the explosion of coverage on Twitter: Dozens of reporters in the courtroom post on nearly every detail -- from the color of the defendant’s suit to the quality of police work to the judge’s mood -- and more than 400,000 tweets relating to the trial have appeared since it began on March 3, researcher Topsy Labs reports.
In just two minutes on March 24, contributors dispatched 50 Twitter messages with the hashtag #OscarPistorius, which were delivered to 1.2 million accounts when retweets are included, estimates Tweetreach.com, a researcher in San Francisco.
“The very striking thing is how much debate there is about every aspect of the trial and its implications, almost immediately” on Twitter, said Anton Harber, a journalism professor at Johannesburg’s University of The Witwatersrand. “The whole media ecology is changing.”
South Africa has leapfrogged fixed-line phone technology in favor of handheld devices that are driving a boom in data and social media usage. Wireless operators are upgrading their networks to handle data at faster speeds as smartphone use booms.
Vodacom Group Ltd., South Africa’s largest wireless provider, says data usage on its network near the court has increased more than sevenfold during the trial as reporters inside and crowds outside upload photos and video, quickly posting the material to Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites.
Pistorius, a double amputee who competed at the 2012 Olympics in London and has won six gold medals in the Paralympics, acknowledges he shot his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, though he says he mistook her for an intruder. Prosecutors say he killed her after an argument and have charged him with murder and three gun violations. He pleaded not guilty to all charges. The prosecution rested its case yesterday, and the trial was adjourned until March 28.
When two broadcasters applied for permission to run live feeds from the courtroom -- the first such coverage in the country -- Pistorius attorney Barry Roux said that would prevent his client from getting a fair trial. On Feb. 25, a High Court judge approved the broadcasters’ request, saying it was in the interest of justice, though with some restrictions. Close-ups are barred, and witnesses can only be filmed with their permission.
Since the trial began, cameras have been inside the court while dozens of international news crews camp outside waiting for a glimpse of Pistorius and other participants arriving or leaving.
Among the broadcasting rules is a ban on showing some key evidence. On March 12, though, after Twitter users posted messages with photos of the bathroom door that Pistorius fired through, killing Steenkamp, Judge Thokozile Masipa ruled that images of the door could be released. Reporters rushed to the front of the courtroom, jumping on the benches to snap away with their smartphone cameras. Scores of photos quickly flooded Twitter.
Before the shooting in February of last year, research firm World Wide Worx had predicted the number of Twitter users in South Africa would double to 4.8 million during 2013. Interest in Pistorius helped push that to 5.5 million by December, and the trial this year may add as many as 1 million more users, spurring smartphone sales, said Arthur Goldstuck, managing director of the technology consultancy.
“If you’re not near a TV set or a radio, the best way of following the trial is on Twitter,” Goldstuck said. “It’s a self-sustaining cycle as smartphones drive Twitter use and demand for Twitter drives smartphone use.”
Even the 24-hour TV channel dedicated to Pistorius, called The Oscar Pistorius Trial: A Carte Blanche Channel, is taking cues from Twitter. At 6 p.m. every weekday, it features an hour-long program called Social Media Analysis that looks at tweets and Facebook posts by reporters and the general public. The show encourages viewers to send questions to anchor Emma Sadleir using the hashtag #AskEmma.
“Do you think Roux looks up all the social media posts and then gets new ideas for the case #AskEmma?” Armando Loureiro of Johannesburg tweeted to Sadleir. “Why did he not plead temporary insanity?” asked another.
The debut of the social media analysis was the second-most viewed show on the trial channel during the first week, according to Multichoice, a satellite TV unit of Naspers Ltd. that broadcasts the channel.
“We took a chance on the trial,” said Imtiaz Patel, Chief Executive Officer of Multichoice. “We’re entrepreneurs and we tend to work from our gut. We found that social media drives viewership.”
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