The reports of social TV's death have been greatly exaggerated

15 Oct 2012  |  Richard Kastelein 


Award winning creative technologist, Richard Kastelein, on the future of brand delivery on TV.

I read an interesting piece in TechCrunch this weekend coined, "Twitter Dominates Live TV Because Social TV Is Failing," from Somrat Niyogi, the CEO of Miso - one of the earliest American startups in the Social TV arena.

"Why should a user open up YOUR app versus the other billion apps out there around TV?", writes Niyogi. "... (there have) been more than 100 second screen apps developed (and this doesn't even include the one-off iPhone apps that have been created by the networks)."

I find the timing of the headline a tad ironic as zeebox just swept in from the UK and did a couple of enormous deals over the past few weeks that have pretty much planted Social TV right on American soil to stay - stepping right over the likes of GetGlue, Miso, Shazam and all the other American 'incumbents'.

1. In an unprecedented alliance Comcast Cable, NBC Universal, HBO & Cinemax are all teaming with zeebox in a 'first-of-its-kind' endorsement of a universal, cross-channel TV viewing companion app for iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch, Android, and the web.

2. zeebox forms strategic partnership with Viacom

Perhaps one of the reasons for the successful deals zeebox has put together has been the fact that Twitter is deeply integrated into the platform - as is Facebook. But my gut feeling is...the real attraction and USP are the zeetags.

If content is king, as they say in the TV industry, context is the crown. Watercoolers have been around for generations but they are largely digital now. The missing link is the ability to provide meaningful context if you want to solve the consumer problem. Who's in this, what's being said about it, why should I watch it? Why do I have to look this stuff up? Discussion, dissemination and discovery are all hugely important but great social TV user experience needs great context.

I have been writing about temporal metadata around TV for about a year now and I believe it could be a 'Google AdWord' type play for TV. And that's why zeebox is able to put together the deals it has. No one else is making that level of play - zeebox is now ingesting all of UK TV and the TV streams of their American partners in real time, using automated content recognition (ACR) and other technologies to strip metadata, then linking those tagged properties to Twitter, news, Wikipedia and creating new forms of t-Commerce. Major TV industry players are partnering in the US because they can't afford not to bank on the possibility that zeebox may have nailed it.

The back story on zeebox and their zeetags has its roots in the BBC which has been playing with this technology for some time - and has had a wide-open metadata ecosystem since 2005. The brainy BBC continues to research temporal metadata following up on aspects of the MyMedia and NoTube projects, with academic institutions in Europe.

The CTO and co-founder of zeebox, Anthony Rose built the BBC iPlayer a few years ago and certainly tapped all the brilliant intel available (as well as his own ideas) to set the stage for what appears to be a prime example of successful social TV (if you look at deals as benchmarks).

Niyogi writes on:

What we are doing wrong -

We make it about the people in business, not a business for people. As an industry, we're trying to capitalize on a business proposition, not a consumer proposition. Yes, people have another screen up while they are watching TV. But the moment we stop trying to leverage the second screen real estate, that is the moment we are heading in the right direction.

We need to stop telling and start asking. Right now, second screen apps are saying, "Here are other ways you can use your smartphone while you watch TV!" But is anybody really asking, "What do people really want to do when they watch TV?" I can guarantee that from my experience, I've found that regular users don't care about this whole two-screen, synchronous, social TV phenomenon.

Presently, the global games industry is worth around $70 billion for 2012. That's twice the size of the music industry, twice the size of the book industry and three times the size of the movie industry. We have Generation G (gamers) who are now in their forties who have grown up engaging with content. Over 100,000 people play along with The Million Pound Drop live on Friday nights in the UK and over 600,000 downloaded The Voice of Holland out of a population of 16.5 million (in USA terms that would be 11,528,900 second screen engagement downloads for one show).

One should not underestimate how quickly and drastically consumer behaviour can change. Remember when we used to use mobile phones for just calling people? Look what we do with them now. TV will change from what we have known for decades - it's ripe for it - there's too much visual Ritalin, too many commercials and as narrative developments show in the transmedia world, stories are going to get more complex on TV...as they should in the future.

We have been on a long journey from - people screaming at a screening of an oncoming train during the first ever publically shown film - to extremely rich, complex narratives with transmedia properties such as The Matrix and Avatar today.

Niyogi is right about one thing clearly. Forget trying to recreate the interruptive business model of commercial television and port it to the second screen. It's not going to work. Sorry, but we dealt with internet popups in the 90's on PCs and that's a leap backwards into the dark.

I wrote this about a year and a half ago:

I also understand that brands need to fund quality formats via broadcasters for some time into the foreseeable future. But their minions, the agencies, are going to have to get a lot more creative in how they engage consumers in the future - and the 'old' easy way of simply throwing 30 seconds at a public that wants to watch, what they want to watch, when they want to watch it, on any connected device, anywhere they want to watch it, preferably without being interrupted - is a dying proposition.

Branded content is a solution. Preferably subtle product placement will be another way. Game mechanics with calls to action on a second screen will be a winner. More targeted engagement is undeniably more likely to get attention. Accessorizing works...feel free to give me added value to things I own. Freemium is pretty cool. Micropayments I can live with. Affordable subscriptions for content I really get a kick out of are nice. Let me have the chance to win something. Give me more compelling reasons to like the brands. Let me socialize what I like to my networks. Challenge me. Engage me. Give me some buzz.

The future of brand delivery on TV is certainly anyone's guess at this point.

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