Aug 31, 2011

Taking Control: Miramax Shakes Up Social TV

One of the most revolutionary-- and terrifying if you’re a cable operator-- developments in Social TV was announced just last week: Miramax Studios launched its own Facebook/iPad/GoogleTV app. 

The app gives you access to some of Miramax’s greatest hits - Pulp Fiction, Good Will Hunting - on your TV, PC and iPad. And while payment is currently only via Facebook credits, that’s likely to change soon.

The app is still in beta, but if it succeeds, it may well change the way video content is distributed, making it more like print media, where the content creator is also the content distributor. (e.g. The New York Times creates content and then sells it directly to consumers in both digital and analog form.)

In many ways, this feels like a return to TV’s roots: TV was originally free, supported by advertisers, and for the price of a rabbit ear antenna you could watch all the broadcast networks in your area. The networks created their own entertainment, news and sports content, which was delivered directly to consumers, with no middleman involved.

The advent of cable TV in the late 70s and early 80s brought in the concept of a middleman: you got vastly improved reception and a wider variety of stations, but you had to pay the cable operator to watch what had previously been free.

The difference in quality between cable and over-the-air broadcasts was vast enough that most Americans gladly parted with the $300 - 600 a year the cable operators charged them.
While broadband video content has been available since the early days of the internet, it’s only been in the past year or so that the quality of internet-based TV (IPTV and OTT) has improved to the point where the difference between broadband and cable is negligible, particularly around long-form, high production value content. So why not sell your own programming directly to consumers again?

There are a number of reasons, actually, the main one being the cost of driving consumers to your site if you lack the name recognition of a  Miramax and their first-mover advantage.

But the point is you can. And that vastly changes the relationship between the middleman and the content provider, giving the latter much more leverage over the relationship.

Next up, we’ll look at why content creators may want to create bespoke second screen experiences for their fans, something that either sits on top of the EPG or exists as its own separate entity.

Aug 16, 2011

Simplicity Is A Blessing

The other day, I was talking with some friends who also work in digital media. We were all admitting, sheepishly at first, they we had absolutely no idea what the point of Gowalla was, why we had spent a few months last year collecting Chinese lanterns and boots and whatnot, but we'd all figured that everyone else knew and so we didn't want to say anything, lest we sound like even bigger fools.

The conversation was in the context of Empire Avenue, another hot web-based game that no one really seems quite sure how it works. I mean I know your "stock" rises the more tweeting and Facebooking you do, and that there's something called "eaves" that sounds a lot like "linden dollars" and you know, I'm too busy to actually figure it all out.

Quora too. I was down with the idea, but every time I asked what I thought was a simple question, it got all mad at me and started telling me I needed to ask the question in a better way, to be more concise or more specific and then it would never really let me search for things (it was easier to go out to Google and search Quora there) and since most questions are answered somewhere on the internet already, I didn't really get what I was doing there if all they were doing was saying "No!" to me.

Ommwriter was another one: it had all sorts of beautifully designed icons in the set-up, but when I asked if there was a guide somewhere to figure out what they all meant (because, Dude! Words would have like, ruined the whole Zen-ness of the design!) they said, no, we're too cool for that and I figured the hell with that, I'm even cooler, because if I want to listen to massage room music while I write, I've got Spotify and if I want to block the rest of the computer screen, I've got Lion and Pages and the black background is a lot more focusing than that faux Ansel Adams photo with the two little trees in the snow.

FourSquare, on the other hand, has always been pretty intuitive. I checked in. If I checked in more than twice and no one else had, I got to be be Mayor. Sometimes that got me a discount. Most of the time it got me a post on Facebook with a cool little crown icon on it. There was no Governor or County Commissioner or Baron level. Just Mayor and Not-Mayor.  I could cheat if I wanted to and check into places on my way home or if I'd forgotten about it and wanted to say something nice about them.

And that, my friends, is a really long way to get to the point: I was very impressed today when LinkedIn launched a brand new mobile app that simplified the experience down to four basic steps, four simple things that I am actually likely to do on a tiny iPhone screen because it's easier, as opposed to my previous reason for using LinedIn on the iPhone which was that my computer was out of battery power.

I wanted to put this out there because "gamification" has become such an easy buzzword these days, one of those words like "storytelling" and "authenticity" that everyone has their own personal definition of and so no one disagrees with it, even if they're actually thinking of two radically different things.

So keep it simple. You can always make it more complicated and add rules and variations as the game goes on. But we're all pretty busy and we don't have time to figure out all the precious little quirks you want us to.

Angry Birds: 5 different birds, each moves a certain way, pull the rubber band and use them to try and kill the pigs. Boom. Done.

Think about how rich those guys are now and then go design your "gamification" play

Aug 11, 2011

The Three Stages of Social TV

click to expand

In his 1980s masterpiece The Art of Fiction, the late John Gardner said that a great novel should be like "a vivid and continuous dream" one that even the author's own voice should not be capable of interrupting.

Gardner certainly hadn't contemplated the conundrum posed by Social Television where everyone is looking for the magic formula to break us out of the vivid and continuous dreams on the screen and pay attention to each other in a way that's easily controlled and easily monetized.

But a closer look at a term like "social television" shows us that there are three distinct stages of the TV watching experience: Decision Making, Watching and Reviewing, and they all feed on each other in a circular rather than linear patter.

Stage 1: Decision Making

The first question is always going to be "what should we (I) watch?" And the first place we generally turn for that is the Program Guide on the cable box.

Which makes it the perfect opportunity for a Social TV play.

The viewer is actively taking part in a “lean-in” activity. They have not engaged with the programming yet. They are looking for advice, and a large part of what’s made the current crop of social media favorites so successful, is that they help us in the decision-making process. Facebook and Twitter help us decide what to read, what YouTube videos to watch, what news stories to follow. Yelp helps us decide what restaurants to go to, FourSquare helps us determine which bars are hopping.

The ability to gather information from the social web will be a huge boon to the Decision Maker. What shows are my friends watching now? What have they watched, recorded and/or downloaded recently? What are most people in my town watching? What about most people my age?

Let’s look at how that might play out in real life, in America, circa 2011.

Your cable TV provider (e.g. FIOS, Time-Warner, Cablevision) would provide a Program Guide app that worked on your tablet or smartphone. It  would immediately let you customize the default view to something more manageable than all 1598 channels on offer. It would allow you to see, in real time, what shows were getting the most social activity.  (You could customize the inputs there too, so you’d know that “4 of your friends recorded American Idol this week.") You’d then be able to see what people were actually saying, tapping into Twitter and Facebook feeds that showed real time conversation. You’d even be able to respond to and share those comments without leaving the app.

You’d be able to save a show to your DVR with just one click. Rent VOD movies with one click. Even get in touch with customer service, if that’s what you needed.

Each show would have its own robust page, with preview video, photos and bios of cast members, and stats (e.g. 4th most recorded show in Chicagoland area.) You’d also be able to see reviews and ratings from your friends or from the greater community.

There will also be ample opportunity for targeted advertising.

And since all this activity happens before we actually start watching, before the “lean back experience” starts, we’re not going to mind it. It will feel like research, not like an interruption. Particularly if we look at where the experience happens. Sometimes it’s in the den, with everyone sitting around waiting for a decision. But just as often it happens long before the actual viewing: at the office, over dinner, on the ride home.

All of which are places we’re quite happy to be social. has an interesting version of a social program guide app available now. But it’s not tied to any particular cable provider. Imagine how much more useful it would be if it was though, and you could download and rent and buy and get customer service questions answered and give input to the cable company, all from the same app.

One other thing that’s notable about Yap is that it showcases the huge volume of chatter that is currently going on around TV shows. It’s a pretty constant flow and we’re not aware of it because it comes from a different demographic: teens and tweens, for the most part, and a far more diverse group than the tech/media crowd we often associate with Twitter.

And so here’s another reason for embedding Social TV in the Decision Making process: the behavior is already there. People are already commenting about television shows in large numbers. A Social TV app would simply harness that behavior and make the data around it useful to other viewers.

Stage 2: Watching

So once we’ve actually made the decision, it’s time to watch. This is where social gets sticky.

Because watching is a “lean back” experience. And how much we want to lean back depends on our relationship to the content.

Sports programming, particularly baseball, football and basketball have lots of timeouts and other breaks in the action, which gives us ample opportunity to lean in and start talking with our peers, both online and off.

But take a new episode of a crime drama. For many people, this will demand their full concentration. They may want to discuss it at some point, but not while the plot is unfolding.

Which brings up another option: the use of commercials as “Social Intermissions.”

Since we watch TV at home, we have gotten in the habit of taking regular breaks. But with DVRs and VOD, those breaks no longer exist and so we turn to the “pause” button. Scheduled commercial breaks, euphemistically called “Social Intermissions” may be welcome by consumers and rather than blaring out jingles, brands could use this time to engage viewers around the content they’re watching, or at the very least around some sort of social action they can take on the iPad (a poll, a game)

This may also ameliorate the effects of something I identified years ago: Social Media Is Only “Social” If You’re Alone. If you’re sitting with friends watching a TV show, you’re going to be sharing your comments with them. Not with random strangers on the interwebs. A planned break that encourages you to go online and engage in something social may make that sort of activity more palatable.

This is not to say that we need to give up on Social TV interactions during the Watching stage. Just that we need to make distinctions based on the type of content.

Dramas and action shows are Low Social programming: we’re engrossed in the show and don’t want to talk to anyone while it’s on. The action is continuous and there are no logical places to take a break and start talking.

Comedies are Mid Social. It’s fun to share the jokes and most comedies don’t demand your full attention. But there aren’t clearly delineated breaks either, just ebbs and flows in the plot line.

Reality Dramas, shows like Jersey Shore are also Mid Social. The combination of slow-paced scenes and “I can’t believe this!” moments makes conversation easier, but we’re always watching for the unexpected left hook or vomit shot , so there’s a pull on our attention.

Reality Game Shows (Amazing Race, American Idol, etc.) and Sports are both High Social. There are plenty of clearly defined breaks and the winner/loser dynamic both make for easy conversation - both at home and online.

This chart helps break it out:

click to expand

The biggest challenge of the Watching stage is not that people don’t like to chat during CSI Miami. It’s that asynchronous viewing patterns mean they rarely watch it at the same time.

The trend towards on-demand viewing, whether through DVR, VOD or services like Netflix, is growing exponentially. We cannot expect that Program Guide app users will all be watching shows at the same time. Which is why the one-click recording and inclusion of shows currently on their DVRs will both be important.

One click recording allows me to catch up with what my friends are watching or a show that seems to be getting a lot of social activity. Including my recordings in my current listings allows me to see the full range of possibilities available to me as well as any activity around them, which may well have increased since I first recorded the show.

In terms of asynchronous sharing, technology exists that allows me to insert comments that are attached to specific time codes on the recording. That way a friend can watch along an see comments seemingly in real time. This can even be a group experience, where each new user adds comments or “likes” someone else’s comment.

Stage 3: Reviewing

Once we’ve watched a show, we’re far more likely to review it. A well-designed Social TV app can prompt that behavior too - either by asking you to rate a show as it’s ending or creating a points and levels system that rewards users for leaving ratings and reviews.

In addition to “official” on-site reviews, the app can aggregate opinions and comments left on the social web, adding yet another metric for users to refer to in the Decision Making stage.

There’s a use for the time code technology discussed earlier here too: users can be given the option to “Re-watch and Comment” on a show, so that they can go back and insert their comments (at appropriate times) now that they’ve seen how the show (or game) ends.

Which loops us back around to the Decision Making process. More than encouraging reviews, a well designed Social TV app will provide other users with data around those reviews. Sliced and diced by age, location, gender and other identifiers. A key data point will be activity from our own social graphs.

When I open my Time Warner Program Guide app,  I want to see what shows people are talking about. But mostly I want to see what shows my friends are planning to watch and which shows they felt strongly enough about to comment on, so that I can talk to them about it. In real life or online, it’s going to make TV a lot more social.

So to wrap this all up, if I was a cable or IPTV operator, I’d be looking to develop apps that took advantage of Stage 1 and Stage 3, the lean-in experiences, where we already have the means and behavior necessary to create useful social applications. And while I was doing that, I’d keep my eyes on the lean back experience and see what develops as TV viewing becomes more social and more asynchronous.

(NB: We'll be taking a deeper look at some of these trends and stages in future posts. Think of this as a high level overview.)

Aug 9, 2011

What Is Social TV?

Social TV is threatening to become everyone's favorite new buzzword. The name itself invokes both old and new media channels and manages to sound both revolutionary and consumer friendly.

But what exactly is Social TV? What does it look like and how do we use it?

That's the issue: no one really knows yet. And if they tell you they do, they're lying.

Social TV is an amorphous thing that's very much in the early stages of being defined. There are hundreds of different ways the hows, wheres and whys may play out; dozens of options we can't even begin to predict yet.

We can start with a very broad definition: the ability to use digital technology to interact with another person around a television show. But how and when and where that interaction takes place are still very much unknowns.

While there are many models (and more on the way) for what a social television experience may look like, there are just as many questions as to what will feel right. Everyone seems to agree that the ultimate goal is to create an experience that equals or surpasses the real life experience of watching TV with other people and the social inteactions around that.

That's a pretty broad target, one that means different things to different people, with a whole lot of extra variables thrown in.

Over the next week or two I'll be taking a look at all these different variables and how Social TV solutions might address them.

Everything from the different ways we watch different types of programming-- a college football game versus a crime drama-- to the effects of asynchronous viewing patterns in an on-demand world, to who we want to share our experience with, to the use of commercial breaks as social intermissions. to the degree which sharing a viewing experience changes our reaction to it. (Think of watching a comedy in a crowded theater versus alone at home.)

I'm hoping to get a lot of feedback-- there are no right answers-- so don't be shy.


Aug 5, 2011

On The Radio

If you want to hear what I sound like in person, tune in tomorrow (Saturday, August 6th) at 10 AM Central when I'll be on CNN's Everything Internet radio show along with Jason Falls.

You can see details and get download info (it's released as a podcast on iTunes afterwards) here.

UPDATE: The iTunes link is live 

Aug 4, 2011

I Have Seen The Future And It Is Called BetterFacebook

BetterFacebook is an extension for Chrome and Safari that does a number of things, most notably add the Circle functionality of GooglePlus to Facebook.

So every post, photo, link, etc., comes with the easily accessible choice of which Friend Lists to publish it to.

Now granted it is a bit of a hassle to go back through your contacts and assign them all to different lists, but my immediate impression was surprise at how many more circles I had on Facebook. Which isn't all that surprising: the only people on G+ now are people I know through work, so the circles I've created basically rely on how well I know them.

With Facebook, I've got a much broader range of circles since my "friend" list on there includes family members, childhood, college and neighborhood friends, etc.

Having set this up, it's easy to see the huge functionality gains inherent in being able to address distinct groups. For instance, this morning New Jersey Transit was having another of its frequent delays. I could have sent out a check-in from the station to my "local friends" circle - people who would actually be interested in knowing the trains were running behind schedule.

It's easy to see two things happening as a result:

1. I rely less on specialized platforms - if I can target all my activity to the people who might care about that information, I have less need for specialized check in services around things like food, television, etc.  I also wind up posting more, since I don't have to wrestle with those "does everyone on Facebook really need to know this?" thoughts. (Clearly there are many people who don't wrestle with these thoughts, but I suspect they are often victims of the "Hide" button.)

2. Brands gain the ability to really "slice and dice" their messaging by putting their fans into groups based on previous behavior, location and/or opt-in preferences. This makes their messaging feel a lot less generic and a lot less like spam. (For the most part... let's be real: lots of lazy brands will still spam their fans)

These behaviors may happen on Google Plus or on Facebook or both. But check out BetterFacebook if you want to see what the future could look like.

You can always uninstall it.

Aug 1, 2011

Repeating the Mistakes of the Past

> A Few Reflections on Month One of GooglePlus:

• It took Facebook years to even become a blip on MySpace's radar, but too many already seem to want instant results- from G+, as if 100 million people should have already dropped one for the other.

• The exclusivity behind the initial launch was genius, especially for the tech/media crowd it was aimed at. Not only did it factor in connectedness, but also gave them a new hip club to hang at, now that the whole B&T crowd had overtaken Facebook and high school buddies didn't care about the latest release from Zynga

•Like Twitter circa 2007, it's easy to forget there are people on who do have lives outside of work. Hence, every time I see a kid or pet photo or restaurant tip on G+, they seemed to go unnoticed, while a new Chrome extension... Wow

•Speaking of Chrome, if you weren't using it before, you probably are now. Big winner from the G+ buzz

•The twittererti don't seem to get why they're still having the same issues now that they've become Pluserati, e.g., the inability to have conversations, the inability to manage their streams, the inability to take a 15 minute break between public posts, etc.

•They are still trying to sound surprised they have so many followers, with classic posts asking people why they were following them, as if the fans were a rowdy bunch of paparazzi who kept trying to photograph them while they were eating lunch.

• Its fascinating to watch the platform develop as users settle in. Sort of like a prairie town or new suburban subdivision (The Willows at GooglePlus), they're developing their own unwritten laws about use, etiquette, and interactions. (And when the non-tech/media crowds come on, those rules will change once again.)

•Google seems to be listening, or at least they say they are, which is worlds away from the paternalistic tone of the other platform.

• The spammers found their way on pretty quickly and it seems there are already sites promising to add thousands of people to your circles everyday!! along with Em-El-Em schemes to make you rich QUICK!

• And once all that happens, make way for Justin Bieber...

You can view/comment on the original version of this at Google+