Hulu is hard at work transforming tv-watching into a social experience. They’re encouraging viewers to watch the premiers of their favorite programs on Facebook with friends and strangers alike, sharing comments with one another (and with eavesdropping marketers) through streaming status updates. Judging whether television watching can be a social activity based on these efforts alone is to consider only a fraction of the social relationships possible around content sharing. The key players aren’t thinking big enough yet. Fully realizing social TV’s potential means rethinking all aspects of television watching, distribution and revenue models, and how each can become more social.
A few areas to consider:
1. Widen the focus beyond first-runs
The efforts I’m reading about are organized primarily around premiers and new episodes of popular programs. This makes social television viewing more a promotional tactic than a strategic attempt to evolve viewing behavior. Much of television consumption is spontaneous, so how does social TV work when we’re channel-surfing?
On Facebook I can see, through the chat function, which of my friends are online. We don’t have to coordinate ahead of time to chat. A similar technology would work for television, enabling a viewer to see which of his friends are watching TV at 2 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon, or which share his insomnia on a Thursday night. In fact, this is the programming — World Series of Poker reruns, third round PGA, the Die Hard marathon — that would most benefit by commentary (or distraction) from one’s friends. And once on-demand programming fully arrives, social television viewing becomes all the more beneficial. Rather than choosing what to watch from a glut of films and reruns, one can simply join one’s friends on the virtual couch (this could get even more interesting if the free lectures universities are placing online could be accesses and viewed socially).
2. Allow social distribution
We’re assuming shared television content must come, as it has traditionally, directly from the content producers. Why? Let viewers share screens and their DVR libraries as readily as they share their social network data streams. The social and commercial benefits multiply. There’s a social badge that comes from being the friend with premium channels who grants temporary access to friends wishing to coview programs not available through their cutrate cable packages. What better endorsement of a series’ (and network’s) quality than a trusted friend physically sharing it with others? Is this fundamentally any different than handing your iPod to a friend so she can hear a favorite song or a new band?
Revenue loss — hell, revenue tracking — is a legitimate concern, but would allowing a non-subscriber to watch True Blood by linking through a subscribing friend’s television cripple HBO, or expose new audiences to a program they might otherwise have missed? Is this any better or worse — more expensive or less — than a DVD insert in a magazine? If the linked in viewer is willing to watch advertisements at the beginning of the episode for the privilege and convenience, the technology would provide the network an additional revenue stream while giving advertisers (including those paying top dollar for True Blood‘s product placements) the detailed and more accurate viewership numbers they’re missing today when one physically watches at a friend’s (or not at all).
3. Provide dedicated channels for viewer/marketer interaction
Branding and advertising are crucial elements of social TV. Let’s bring marketers in from the periphery. Give them paid access to an anonymized, searchable and sortable database of opt-in viewers, and give viewers willing to supply their viewing data (again, anonymously) subsidized cable. Consumers interested in additional discounts or credits could agree to more direct engagement with brands, from using a digital Luntzian dial rater while watching programs, to answering brand-related questions after specific advertisements, all voluntary and rewarded. Social badge systems for frequency/quality of reviews and feedback could create a focus group network of insightful consumers, in demand both by brands and other viewers looking for recommendations from respected peers. The convenience of participating at home and in one’s free time (rather than during professional work hours) means a higher caliber pool of consumers for focus groups, and more direct (and valuable) compensation models.
Say, for instance, instead of watching “Dark Knight” for the third time on a Saturday afternoon, one could log in and join five friends (or strangers with similar lifestyles or demographic profiles) in viewing and discussing a new television pilot, a potential ad campaign or the first-cut of a Hollywood film on some password-protected direct channel? In return, the group gets pay-per-view credits, or a month of free HBO. Wouldn’t this serve customer and marketer alike and create a more natural viewing environment for the participants than some mirrored marketing lab?
The question isn’t if, but when and how the major players will capitalize on the true potential for social television. Doing so will require an open mind, and a willingness to think beyond the traditional distribution, revenue and engagement models in which networks have operated for generations. Simply placing content on a website and allowing people to watch and comment together won’t cut it. Neither will merely turning the television set into another internet portal. The technologies are here already, we just need a little imagination and a willingness by the entertainment and Internet companies to pool their talents and resources to make truly social TV a reality.
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