We all know about the phenomenon of people using their computers while watching TV. We even know something about how many people (claim to) do it.
In recent years, broadcasters have invested heavily in building the Web presence of their strongest program brands to both build audience in advance of series premieres and between air dates during a series to extend the reach of a program and exploit fan communities. Some have even successfully maintained a level of Web-based interaction while series have been off the air altogether, providing opportunities for catch-up where viewers have missed shows or refreshers before a new season starts.
Obviously, not everyone using their computer while watching TV is doing so in a way that relates to the content they are "watching" at all (and of those who are, fewer still will be using "official" sites to do so). Many will be checking email, getting to the work-related tasks they didn't finish in the office that day, playing games and who knows what else.
One thing that many of these people will inevitably be doing in front of the TV is using their social network(s) of choice. Over the last few weeks I have been struck by the extent of the activity on Facebook (at least among my network of Friends) during the party conventions. The Republican convention in particular generated a regular firestorm of activity from people of all political persuasions, largely due to the polarizing effect of McCain's choice of running mate.
I lost count of the number of people posting and reposting status updates (most of which were comments on the proceedings). Similarly, others were commenting and counter-commenting on those status updates. At one point I had about five or six dialogues of that kind underway. People were posting links on their Wall to video as soon as it appeared online, and continued doing so for days after the proceedings.
The Democratic convention had a similar effect, as people waited to see how the whole Hillary thing would be resolved, but ultimately (among my Friends at least) the overall level of activity was probably less intense and varied.
Looking beyond the conventions, it is clear that this kind of behavior is far from isolated. Sport appears to be a particular driver for interactions via Facebook of the kind described above. Whether your passion is baseball, basketball, football, tennis or golf, it seems that you stand a good chance of being sufficiently moved by what you are watching on TV to share your enthusiasm, despair, elation and bias with your network on Facebook. Looking for evidence of program engagement? Look no further.
Of course, not all programming is equal in this regard, but then not all programming is equal in its ability to generate more traditional word-of-mouth or loyal audiences, either. But as a basic indicator of just how engaged viewers become with program content, Facebook interactions undoubtedly add something to the mix.
Until such time as we see onscreen interaction available through our TVs, this ability to chat as programs and televised events unfold will remain on a second screen. Facebook -- because of its inherently social nature, and because I suspect many people are browsing it while in front of the TV -- may become the default interface for much of this interaction, prominent among which will be the form of chat illustrated above.
But it may yet go beyond this if this week's announcement by CBS and iWidget delivers the kind of results that are hoped for. Basically, CBS programming will now be available through Facebook, MySpace and iGoogle without having to leave the site to view it. This opens up all sorts of possibilities for the broadcaster to ride on the back of the behavior already seen on these social networks, as people discuss and otherwise respond to what they see onscreen.
With added functionality like voting applications, trivia and whatever else CBS comes up with, all this sounds quite close to the long-held vision of interactive TV that still remains to be realized on the TV itself.
Time will tell just what this delivers for different programs. Will dramas be as successful as sports and the run-up to the elections? If the buzz around programs like NBCU's "Heroes" is anything to go by, CBS could be making a very smart move that will soon be followed by others.
One thing that is less clear, though, is the impact that growth in this kind of behavior will have on attentiveness to advertising. Admittedly this isn't something that is measured in any systematic way right now, and perhaps the best indicators over time would be to look at trends in ad recall. But even here, there are so many variables to take into account -- DVR fast-forwarding, other PC use, channel switching etc.-- that it would be almost impossible to deliver meaningful conclusions on the issue.
In any event, if what we saw around the party conventions is any kind of indicator to emerging behaviors at all, it is interesting to consider the future role of Facebook and its non-broadcast siblings in the broadcast landscape.