CBS's "social viewing rooms" allow friends to gather in virtual rooms to watch top programs such as "Survivor" and "CSI" at the same time, evoking the collective experience of sitting around the living room TV.
"In many respects, for people on the online side today watching video is a one-to-one experience, leaning forward into the computer screen," said Anthony Soohoo, senior vice president and general manager for entertainment at CBS Interactive. But in a social viewing room, "a friend who is 3,000 miles away will actually feel like he's sitting right next to you."
While watching synchronized playback of TV shows at CBS.com, viewers can chat, comment, and participate in polls and quizzes and even virtual objects such as tomatoes or kisses at the screen.
The service debuts Wednesday with 15 prime-time and daytime programs with plans to expand social viewing rooms to other CBS properties such as the CW and Showtime. Intel is the exclusive sponsor of the launch.
"The main purpose is that we want to build critical mass across our content," said Soohoo. "We want to have a good amount of users in a (social viewing) room--at least three or four." He declined to say what specific audience goals CBS had for the service, but said the network would be able to gauge the response after a quarter.
CBS is not the first media company to try simulating screening rooms online. Entertainment portal Lycos two years ago started a similar service allowing people to convene to watch movies and TV shows, including ABC's "Wildfire."
CBS may hope its own social viewing effort will help boost TV ratings as well . At a recent industry event, Patrick Keane, executive vice president and chief marketing officer at CBS Interactive, noted that 35% of the networks' viewers say they are watching more TV because of programs distributed online.