Social TV

AntiSocialTVFrom Facebook to Twitter to text messaging, multiple screens are rewriting the way we relate to what’s on the tube 

The year is 1964. There are three channels on television. The average household has one or two telephones, none of which are push button. The “mini computer” won’t be invented for another year and will sell for $18,000 with no practical consumer use. 

On a particular Sunday night in February that year, 73 million Americans tuned in to The Ed Sullivan Show to see The Beatles perform. Families and friends gathered around their televisions to take in the controversial performance and share their reactions. The experience reverberated beyond the living room, spilling out into everyday life, mostly through analog and in-person means, greatly constrained by geography. 

In those days, watching television was a group activity, an institution. But as years passed, homes added more screens, programming became more diverse, and recorded/on-demand media caused a shift in viewing habits and hence an erosion to the once standard gathering around a screen.

As the proliferation of various screen types collided with various technologies, two areas of research and culture began to emerge. The first, interactive television, added an unprecedented viewer-participation component to the TV viewing experience. Never before had viewers been able to so readily affect the plot line or outcome of a television show.

The second phenomenon has, as of late, bombarded the world of media with a promise to both viewers and advertisers the restoration of what once was a cherished and economically beneficial aspect of TV viewing. This sensation took the media world by storm in 2011 and is commonly referred to as Social Television.

In order to properly explore the progression of the television screen as a catalyst for socialization and interactivity, it is helpful to examine the inherent elements and history of the two as separate disciplines.

Interactive TV and You

Interactive TV, at least for our purposes here, encompasses technology and TV content that caters to involving the viewer with the broadcast through forms of active participation. Interactive TV predates Social Television simply because it was far easier to enhance the relationship between viewers and on-screen content than it was to connect viewers to each other.

The first instance of interactive TV was a children’s program called Winky Dink and You, which went on the air in 1953, long before any sort of social networking. The show required viewers to buy a Winky Dink screen and crayons to play along. During the broadcast, viewers would be asked to put the overlay screen on their television, essentially creating a canvas, so that the viewers could complete on-screen activities woven into the plot of the program.

In the years that followed, programs like The Today Show, in the late 1950s, broke new ground by taking phone calls from viewers during their broadcasts, taking the viewer from having a passive role into making them part of the show. 

As time passed, viewer participation evolved to richer and more interesting formats, thanks to the availability of consumer technology that mimicked the equipment in television studios, namely cameras. With the proliferation of consumer camcorders and TV-connected players in the mid-1980s, consumers were now not only able to record footage to play back on their own television sets, but they could also have their footage put out over the airwaves.

Local news broadcasts began encouraging viewers to send in “eyewitness” video when camera crews were not able to reach a scene in time, and in 1989, America’s Funniest Home Videos became the quintessential viewer participation television program. The one-hour program, made up almost entirely of viewer-submitted video airtime, became one of the top 10 most-watched shows, with an average of 38 million viewers per episode in 1990.

While America’s Funniest Home Videos came into our living rooms perfectly timed for the VHS home movie cultural phenomenon, all submissions were voted on by a studio audience. This greatly limited the sense of community and “reputation” that could be built up among fans. 

With the judging fragmented, limited to those present on the set, viewers at home found themselves often disagreeing and not fully feeling involved with the participatory experience. Allowing all viewers, not just those in the studio audience, to vote and/or curate submissions or affect plot lines didn’t have its watershed moment until 2003. 

We’ve often joked that Paula Abdul is singlehandedly responsible for bringing about the Short Message Service (SMS) revolution in the United States. American Idol launched SMS voting in its second season and received 7.5 million text votes. That pales in comparison to its most recent season, in which 178 million votes were cast with text messages. In recent years, contestant reality shows have begun online voting via Facebook and Twitter, as well.

The most recent features presented by the interactive TV movement take advantage of viewers who have other devices with them while watching their TVs. Sports franchises such as Sunday Night Football and awards programs such as the Academy Awards offer multiple video feeds and behind-the-scenes coverage of their events on second screens for avid fans.

Social TV

Social TV is an additional area of study, along with enabling technologies and products focused on recreating and improving upon the sociopsychological rewards of watching television in a group setting.  While the current Social TV movement is in full swing thanks to social media and post-PC device adoption, the use of computer technologies to make television more social and interactive among viewers in disparate locations is not new.

The first computer mediated socialization about TV dates back to the 1970s and ’80s on dial-up bulletin board systems, and FidoNET and USENET forums.  These interactions did not have great reach beyond computer hobbyists and were often limited to message boards that could take days to update globally, including Internet Relay Chat (IRC) and instant messaging services such as ICQ, AOL Instant Messenger and PalTalk.

In more recent years, several services have popped up on the Web to assist in the congregation of fans around TV shows — other services are just playing supportive roles. There is no denying that TV fan culture is alive and well on the Web, though in varying degrees of involvement.

Passive activities like the “check-in” are seen on apps like Miso, GetGlue and IntoNow (although all of these apps are beginning to add more immersive functionality). These applications both help viewers brag about what they are watching and also help them find new shows to watch based on the declarative statements made by their friends.

The spread of post-PC devices — smartphones and tablets — that not only serve as second screens for viewing content but also are powerful enough for content creation and link-sharing has caused a convergence between interactive television and social television applications. 

As these charts show, there is a very high correlation between television viewing and the use of post-PC devices for calls, text and Web/app use. Twitter and Facebook see very high activity during televised events. Twitter, for example, reached 12,233 tweets per second shortly after the Giants defeated the Patriots in the Super Bowl.  (Not sorry, Pats fans.) That’s 8,169 more tweets per second than last year’s big game!

Some analysts speculate that the growth of social behavior, like tweeting, during televised events is related to the growth of tablet usage. Nielsen reported in late 2011 that 70 percent of iPad use occurs in front of a TV, making it seem that tablets are the preferred second-screen device for the couch.  

One such application that is focused on the intersection of social and interactive television is TV Dinner. (As the brains behind this start-up, we have to make the disclaimer that everything you are about to read in this section is self-serving, but we are including it here because it really matters. We don’t think we’ll be the only ones looking to create experiences that make it easier and more rewarding for people to connect while watching TV.)

The vision of TV Dinner is to provide a fun experience for viewers in which they become active contributors to the body of culture surrounding a broadcast or event. The platform essentially fuses elements of interactive television with social interaction. It launched first on the iPad because we felt it was by far the best “couch computing” device.

Viewers become publishers of various types of content while watching their favorite broadcasts. The content can be image captions, poll and survey questions, or simply fun facts or opinions. Viewers are then rewarded for creating content, voting and commenting. They have the capability to earn super status within the community when their content reaches mass popularity.

At scale, platforms like TV Dinner will become a hub of self-expression and a source of rich fan content. As these types of platforms gain popularity, there will be great value in the real-time insights that can be made about our relationship to all forms of media consumption. For now, platforms like TV Dinner make for a fun way to watch television and create and enjoy fan content in a way not possible with current mainstream social applications.

Despite the media industry’s recent obsession with the notion of social television, the “super-fan” has long played a role in the rich culture of television. Fan art and other types of fan fiction have risen from an underground pastime to a mass, countercultural movement — so much so that, one can hardly deem these self-appointed cultural curators as counterculture at all.

While there is a great deal of socialization around television on Twitter, Get Glue and other popular platforms, the most robust fan culture is still seen in the blogosphere. Blogs ranging from the thoughtful and snarky TV Critic (ex: Warming Glow, Hulu’s The Morning After) to teenage non sequiturs about pop-culture happenings.

An early example of television fan culture on the Web was Lost. User-generated content around the TV show was unprecedented, but more interestingly, in the beginning it was unprompted. Given the show’s vast fan culture, producers began to tease audiences, trying to thwart would-be spoilers. This interplay between creator and viewer gave rise to the popularization of trans-media storytelling, or the unraveling of a plotline across various media types. But trans-media storytelling is not only about the interaction between a story’s point of origin and its ultimate destination. Various fan-created podcasts and blogs were created, speculating the happenings of both past and future episodes. Eventually, fan chatter helped shape the actual direction of the show.

Since that time, fan fiction has run rampant on the Web. Show-specific sites such as drunkronswanson.com take fan culture to new and ridiculous heights (that is not to say this site is LMAO great). This site features a single animated gif of Ron Swanson dancing —full screen. As if that were not great enough, it does so at full screen. Go watch it — I dare you to not crack a smile!
Popular mash-up memes based on television have also gained popularity. “Cap Gifs” and the alternate universe (AU) meme have become incredibly popular on the blogging platform Tumblr. In an AU meme, viewers build elaborate screenshots and animations depicting what could have been in an episode or series. Recent AU memes have explored the push-pull relationship between Richard Castle and his boss, Beckett. These creations are due, in part, to the longing that fans have to witness a specific outcome.

 We are excited by the rise of new self-expression tools and the ongoing interplay between content creators and fans, and the fans themselves. Some say that consumption is the new production, or more precisely, the act of watching a show has become engaged activity, empowering fans to play a role. Why bother to become actors when we can take part in TV shows, right from the comfort of our own couches?

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