Towards a truly social TV experience (part 1)

Posted November 24, 2010 in media  |  2 Comments so far

When the concept of on-demand television was still new and exciting, it was tempting to think it might lead to the demise of the mass synchronous experience that was broadcast TV. After all, what value could broadcast TV deliver that on-demand services like the iPlayer couldn’t? And was that value really worth the inconvenience and inflexibility it imposed on the viewer, who had to be in a set place at a set time to view the programme? Apart from sport and news, would anyone really care about the transmission times of programmes once on-demand TV had taken off?

By now we know that, yes, people do still care about the transmission times of TV programmes, and the synchronous viewing experience of broadcast TV can have a value that justifies the burdens it places on the viewer. But this isn’t because on-demand hasn’t taken off. On-demand services have transformed the way we view television, but the broadcast TV experience has a new lease of life too.

The internet, unsurprisingly, is the driving force behind both on-demand’s success and the renaissance in broadcast viewing. But two intertwined yet distinct “strands” of the internet are at work here.

With on-demand, it’s the internet’s infrastructure – content delivery networks, consumer ISPs, the computers and set-top boxes found in the homes of viewers. The nuts and bolts of the internet’s growth have enabled on-demand services and the design of products like the iPlayer.

But with broadcast TV, it’s not so much the technological or infrastructural “strand” of the internet as its social layer – social use of the internet among the wider public has grown hugely in the last five years. At the same time social interactions have accelerated, becoming more synchronous and less like the newsgroup / messageboard model of old. We post less words, more frequently, and the result is a far more conversational mode of online interaction.

This has introduced a new dimension to the experience of watching broadcast TV. Viewers might not be physically connected to one another, as they were in the heyday of TV with the whole family gathered in the living room. But they’re connected to hundreds, thousands, maybe millions of others, watching the same show as they are. Some of these people are friends and others are strangers, but all are in reach – all are potential contributors to a conversation about the programme. Even the viewer sat alone in their living room can feel connected and involved as they watch, in a way that they couldn’t before.

So the internet has brought about an alternative to broadcast TV while giving it a new lease of life at the same time. And it’s not just geeks that are engaged in this new way of TV viewing – if you need proof of this, a cursory glance at the #xfactor hashtag on Twitter should do it. The public has raced ahead of the technology here, using whatever gadgets come to hand to keep up with the conversations. No tool or “product” designed for social TV viewing is particularly prominent, it’s something that the public just does, in its own way.

Is this going to change? Will technology catch up with the public – will new services specifically designed for social TV viewing come along, will they work, and will they bridge the gap between the on-demand and broadcast experiences? I’ll explore these questions in more detail in part 2 of this post.

2 comments so far.  Post a comment

  1. Lindsey
    November 26, 2010 at 9:24 am [ Permalink

    I keep not replying to this, mostly because I’ve had too many thoughts about it in the time available, but I’ll never have enough time so I thought I should just get on with it.

    I completely agree about the infrastructural differences of ‘on-demand’ and ‘broadcast’ television. There is also a significant social opportunity that broadcast events (X factor final, general elections, etc) provide the TV viewing public, even those who might not normally spend time on social networks. But there are serious questions about usability and the role of the TV as an ‘appliance’ that I think mean that simply layering the social web experience on top of a broadcast viewing experience won’t work.

    Not just from my current work in TV technology, I think the next development in connected television that’s required is about really nailing a multiple-application environment on a TV and making it secure, scalable, and easy and enjoyable to use. Platforms that are doing this alreday seem to be either completely vertically integrated, keep third party applications in their own area, and separate from the linear TV experience, or feels like a web-like free for all which are so lightweight that they don’t make any impression on the TV viewing experience, or would be very niche products for users I can’t really identify. There’s a lot of tension between the web and the connected TV market; one thing I am certain of is that the web people will not be able to assume success on the basis of the same usability principles they’ve always used, when they’re working at 10 feet.

  2. Jude
    November 27, 2010 at 10:38 am [ Permalink

    I thought (speaking as viewer, am not in the industry!) the election leaders’ debates this year were an interesting example of where we are. The TV networks realised the interactive potential and they each created their own online/social viewing pages with ‘worms’ to show focus group reactions, drawing together social media references, setting up their own chat pages, etc but watching them with various different things on the screen I found just the programme and Twitter to be the best combination — the rest were just too busy — it was as if they’d tried to do everything at once because they didn’t know what would strike a chord. Also, the instant reaction from focus groups was an interesting way to try to incorporate real-space audience response but it kind of created too much feedback noise — as though we were being told what to think in a fairly traditional-media kind of way.

    Having said that, I don’t watch X Factor so I am probably about a million years behind in terms of social media interaction…

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