Back in the day (10 years ago—might as well be 10,000), social TV meant something along the lines of sitting on a sofa, eating Cheetos, and watching television with your friends.
In the intervening years the exact definition of what social TV means in a super-connected world has expanded exponentially (but you can still eat Cheetos while you watch TV if you want; I don't mind). In a panel discussion at a Social Media Week session hosted by Digitas last Wednesday, top brains from Bravo, Xbox, and LostRemote endeavored to explain what social TV means today, with varying degrees of overlap in their characterizations.
The most basic definition would be when a TV program leverages social networks like Facebook or Twitter, which is kind of de rigueur by now anyway. What's more interesting to Greg Rivera, senior director of advertising sales at Xbox, is how an audience interacts with TV content in real time—in other words two-way television, complete with voice and gesture recognition, polls with trending results, and the ability to literally influence what's happening on the screen. Gone are the days of just vegging out on the couch.
And that's true as much for the programming itself as for the commercials. Microsoft's Natural User Interface ads (NuAds) allow gamers to interact with certain spots. For example, if a brand runs a poll during an ad, viewers could, if they were so inclined, toss in their two-cents and automatically tweet about it to their social network.
“More and more audiences are sitting with a second screen in their laps while they're watching TV,” Rivera said. “So it's up to us to keep people from losing concentration on the main screen.”
But it's not just about what's happening while a show's airing. It's all about tapping into the strong emotional connections viewers have with the programming they consume when they're not actually consuming it.
“The real social TV is happening while the show isn't on—just look at the huge amount of fake Twitter accounts for TV characters; people even make them for shows that aren't on anymore like @SeinfeldToday,” said LostRemote staff writer and Sawhorse Media VP Natan Edelsburg, who noted the myriad thriving fan communities on reddit and Tumblr. “Take Game of Thrones, which has a huge fan art community [on Tumblr]—and believe me, the fans aren't making that art while they're watching the newest episode; they're doing it in between.”
And that's forced networks and the marketers who help them market to stay active not just between episodes, but between seasons, too, said Edelsburg, who pointed out what ABC did to promote its popular teen scandal-fest Pretty Little Liars. The network actually created an entire Web series specifically designed to keep social fans engaged between seasons three and four.
That said, just layering on a little interactivity won't do the trick if the content isn't engaging. Blah content sprinkled with technology for technology's sake will result in an #epicfail.
“It's all about great content, and if you have a great piece of content, it'll go,” said Bravo Digital Media EVP Lisa Hsia. “If you don't, putting all your secret sauces on it isn't going to do a thing.”
Hsia says her brand looks at social TV as “a three million square foot living room” and “a couch with unlimited seats.” She views socially television as an opportunity to curate content and enrich the viewing experience. “Curation” is the operative word. According to Hsia, it's something she's not seeing enough of right now.
“It doesn't matter what social TV is now, but where it's going to go—and we have so much further to go,” Hsia said. “We've done a great job of storytelling across platforms and using social to amplify it, but now I want our social to have more real meaning.”
So what's coming down the social tube pike? Xbox's Rivera said he thinks interactive programming will get to the point where members of an audience could work together to actually influence the outcome of a scripted episode, while LostRemote's Edelsburg envisions a world of global TV launches to combat illegal downloading. But Bravo's Hsia had the best answer.
“I'm seeing triple digit growth in mobile, but not in the monetization of it—and if that doesn't happen, we're going to be in deep doo doo,” she said, to which session moderator Jordan Bitterman, SVP and social-mobile-content practice lead at Digitas responded: “Now that's tweetable.”