Think about “social TV” and what comes to mind is probably something along the lines of people tweeting, texting, or otherwise interacting with each other through social networking while watching the same television program. Seems pretty straightforward; however, those to whom such things matter find it difficult to quantify the true effect of such engagement, probably because they can’t seem to agree on a precise definition of the term.
So what is social TV? In the early days of what could be considered social TV as we generally understand it today, there were “water cooler” shows. These programs were so designated because they were the kind of “must see TV” that sparked conversation amongst coworkers around the office water cooler — or wherever people gathered during downtime throughout the work day. People would talk about the previous evening’s episode and speculate on what sort of direction the plot might take. The more conversation, the more viewers.
With the Internet came blogs, fan forums, and discussion boards where dedicated viewers could trade analysis and theories with other, equally devoted followers of just about any television show. There were also chat rooms where fans were often given the opportunity, with plenty of advance promotion, to post their comments live during the program’s broadcast. The discussion would appear on screen for other viewers to see and participate in through the duration of the episode; it was the forerunner of the Twitter feed.
Today, we participate in these same real-time interactions primarily through smartphones and tablets as part of our viewing experience, and broadcasters are finally taking notice. As a recent study by SocialGuide and Nielsen confirms, an increase in Twitter mentions or branded hashtags of TV programs corresponds to ratings increase, particularly among those under 35. Even the older demographic’s more visible Twitter presence marks a ratings increase as well, the main difference between the two groups being that the over-35 set needs a few more episodes before committing to weekly appointment television.
Of course, major live ephemeral events, such as the FIFA World Cup, the Olympics, the Oscars, etc., tend to get a lot of mentions and follows in part because not everyone is able to see them as they happen. For those who do see them live, there is a sort of “breaking news” satisfaction in being able to comment during the broadcast through social media. But some of the most popular TV shows still in first-run status owe at least some credit to having been “trending” on Twitter. Pretty Little Liars, The Walking Dead, and Mad Men are just a few of the commonly cited examples of shows that have embraced their trending status and used it to their advantage to achieve a wider audience.
While Twitter is more or less the de facto standard to beat, “second screen” applications are one way broadcasters are rethinking their promotional strategy. These apps, currently free to install on smartphones and tablets, provide insights and behind-the-scenes information on the characters, actors, and story — or in some cases, even stream full episodes. American Idol’s mobile app could be considered the benchmark. It lets viewers vote for performances in real time and even rearrange their choices to incorporate a later performance they might like better. Gone are the days when audiences had to phone in their one vote — if they could remember which singer they liked best. The Bravo network has taken this concept one step further in its Play Live social platform. Content normally presented for second screen engagement during live broadcasts (voting, trivia, etc.) is available during regular, pre-recorded programming. If any show is deserving of its own app, HBO’s Game of Thrones is a top contender. The complexity of the relationships of the numerous characters and scale of the overall storyline makes it challenging to follow even for avid viewers.
The problem with second-screen viewing, say some analysts, is that it’s not really a social interaction. They insist that the defining criterion of “social TV” is that audience “engagement” needs to be with other viewers, not just the show or the app itself. What’s more, while second screen apps may incorporate a social or sharing element, that feature alone is highly unlikely to be a content driver for users.
When it comes to engagement, the SyFy network has taken arguably the biggest gamble of all with its new transmedia project Defiance. The story is told simultaneously through both an online, massive multi-player gaming experience and the original episodic series. In addition, the network created a set social media strategy for actors and others involved in the production. Insiders will be watching closely to see how well the gamble pays off. The game might be awful (though early reviews seem to indicate otherwise), which would hinder promotion of the show. Conversely, if the show is a dud, people are unlikely to want to shell out $60 to immerse themselves in a digital version of its world.
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