Towards a truly social TV experience (part 2)

Posted November 29, 2010 in media  |  No Comments so far

This is part two of a three-part post. Click here for part one

When programmes like Question Time, X Factor or The Apprentice are broadcast, an increasing proportion of the audience are watching with other devices close to hand. Some might have a laptop in front of them, others a mobile phone. As the programme begins, these secondary devices come into play, helping viewers share quips and observations with their friends and with the wider world.

From a design perspective, it’s not pretty. People are focusing on more than one screen at a time, their attention divided between the programme and the stream of comments. A large number of apps, devices, tools and services are being used. The ergonomics are awkward, with laptops perched on knees and thumbs typing on Blackberry keyboards. It’s a mess, a dirty hack, a bottom-up kludge where everyone’s improvising with products designed with other things in mind.

Media owners and interactive designers can react to this with both excitement and frustration: it’s exciting that a mass audience is doing something new with technology, something that has its own momentum; but it’s frustrating that they’re doing it in such an inelegant way. A lot of designers and broadcasters would prefer that the social TV experience was happening within a context they had defined, enabled by tools handed down to audiences for precisely that purpose.

Audiences, however, might be quite happy doing what they’re doing with the tools they already have. Can media owners offer them something compelling enough to change this? As Lindsey put it in a comment on part 1 of this post:

…there are serious questions about usability and the role of the TV as an ‘appliance’… simply layering the social web experience on top of a broadcast viewing experience won’t work. …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.

So a more ambitious approach is needed for any “product” that wants to be a central part of the social TV experience – merely putting a browser on a TV isn’t going to cut it.

There are lots of reasons for this, not least of which is that the television has never been good at receiving user input. The three-digit page numbers on Ceefax were a pain to type, and searching on the Virgin Media iPlayer is a gruelling chore that demonstrates how little text entry has improved since then. When you’re watching a TV programme while following numerous online conversations about it, you need to comment quickly and the act of typing can’t be too distracting. Until the television gets better at this, secondary devices like phones and laptops are here to stay.

Browsers on television screens aren’t the only angle being explored. During the UK’s 2010 general election campaign, broadcasters looked at ways of using online conversations about the leaders’ debates to enhance their coverage. Jude summed this up pretty well in another comment on part one:

The TV networks… 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… it was as if they’d tried to do everything at once because they didn’t know what would strike a chord.

Which is understandable, given that broadcasters are still trying to grasp this phenomenon. Adopting a spirit of experimentation by doing as many things as possible is admirable, but can result in an unfocussed experience where the lack of confidence translates to a sense of desperation.

Jude also mentions a tactic the TV networks used, where online audiences were surveyed to capture instant public response to the debates. This idea – incorporate elements of the online discussion into the programme itself – works well in principle, but can a TV programme really convey the volume and diversity of a full-fledged online discussion in a spot lasting thirty seconds? Or are the two mediums in conflict here, with the very nature of television encouraging a kind of editorialised “summing up” that runs counter to the nature of the online discussion As Jude says, this feature came across as fairly “traditional media” when applied to the electoral debates, so maybe the gap between online discussion and linear TV is still too big (although it’s decreasing all the time, as Martin Belam points out in this informative article).

In part three of this post I’ll talk about some other ways in which people are trying to support new ways of watching and talking about TV, including what I see as potentially the most interesting – fusing the broadcast conversations and the on-demand viewing into one single experience.

Edit, Jan 2012: OK, so I never got round to the third part of this post! Too much time was spent watching X-Factor and not enough writing blog posts. I’ll revisit this topic at some point though, I promise

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