As anyone who has ever turned on a television lately can attest, the main pain point in the viewing experience is navigating the increasingly Kafka-esque series of screens that pop up to prevent you from finding whatever it is you are looking for.
So it’s baffling that so many in the adtech industry seem to think that the amorphous entity known as “social TV” is the savior we’ve all been waiting for, the One True Path to improving the viewing experience. (To their credit, those actually in the TV industry seem less easily duped.)
As a founding member of the 2nd Screen Society who spends most of his days studying the industry and applying that knowledge to (shameless plug) KIT’s award-winning Social Program Guide product, here’s my somewhat educated take on what’s going on right now.
Discovery Is The Key Use Case For Any “Social” Data: Let’s start with the fairly safe assumption that the average TV viewer’s initial concern is finding something to watch. That means the typical “social” scenario is going to go something like this: "Oh look, 10 of my friends are watching Revolution, I guess I'll watch too."
And for most viewers, that is going to be the only reason they care what their social graph is up to.
So What Viewers Need Is An App That Lets Them Change The Channel: This is the alpha and the omega of any TV-related app. Because putting down the iPad, searching for the remote, and then rechecking the iPad to see what channel number you want to go to is just not a viable option.
“Social Data” Is A Pretty Fungible Term: As our friends at Zeebox figured out, the data you get from your social graph often isn’t deep enough to make a decision. That’s when you want to see things like what most people in your zip code or age demographic are watching, along with some input from critics to help you make your decision.
Our Social Graphs Are Random And Rarely Consist Of People Whose Opinions We Care About: The average viewer only has a handful of friends whose opinions they care about period, let alone whose opinions on TV shows they trust. And it is just way too much hassle to go through 100+ friends and start ranking them. That's why knowing what your neighbors or age cohort or even fellow football fans are watching will often the most useful data point in deciding what to watch.
Twitter Is An Odd Duck: Twitter, the usual source for “social media data” has an unusual audience that rarely reflects the demographics of the show (or anything, for that matter.) In the real world, the one where everyone's Grandma is on Facebook, nobody's Grandma is on Twitter. And unlike Facebook, Twitter's got a whole lot of hardcore haters, people who actively dislike the platform and all it stands for. It's a highly inaccurate gauge of just about anything, though the ease with which its API is accessed makes it an easy cheat.
Facebook Is A More Accurate Gauge: Unfortunately, it’s rarely used for any sort of real-time interaction: Facebook chats are private and the nature of the platform makes its public postings more about check-ins and reviews than about real-time commentary.
Timeshifting Kills Chatter: The more we watch shows on our own schedule, the less likely it is that anyone we know is watching at the same time. The KIT Social Program Guide app has the ability to capture your friends tweets/posts/comments and display them in real time as you watch, but my suspicion is that outside of sporting and other special events, that functionality will be of limited appeal. And as discussed at length in this piece from 2011, social activity is highly dependent on the type of content being watched and rarely reflects all segments of a show’s fan base.
It’s The Data, Not the Chatter: Social chatter, regardless of the platform, is of little use to anyone. The real value is in the data that MVPDs will be able to collect from users who will have individual second screen accounts. That allows for a scenario where the entire family is watching the same show on the big screen while having individual experiences - uniquely tailored content and advertising - on the second screen. The data around who is watching what (and when) will provide better experiences for everyone from broadcasters to advertisers to viewers. It’s just a matter of who is going to take the lead in implementing a system that allows for those experiences.
Timeshifting Makes User Input More Important: When the answer to "what's on now?" becomes "everything," the most useful interface is one that helps us make decisions. This means bringing the user into the equation.
Current Discovery Models Call To Mind TiVo, Circa 2001. Remember the early days of TiVo when that service used predictive technology to proactively record shows it thought the viewer might want to watch? It was hardly ever right and caused more amusement than anything. Yet we have not really progressed. Just last week I was reading about DirectTV's new Genie DVR whose main selling point seems to be that it will record shows for you based on what it thought you might want to watch.
Just Ask: Forgetting to involve the viewer is the fatal flaw for most all these solutions. Because no app can correctly guess what you are feeling at a particular moment based on your prior behavior. Imagine, if you will, an app that chooses your dinner for you based on your prior eating behavior and what your Facebook friends had recently eaten as well. The app would have no way of knowing what you were in the mood for on any particular night. But say it asked you for some input, like what kind of food you were in the mood for. If you said “Italian” it could spit back a half dozen viable options and even help you narrow that list down further.
Predictive Technology Without User Input Becomes Just Another Parlor Trick: Get it right and it seems like a lucky guess. Get it wrong, and clearly the app doesn’t work. But bring the user into the equation and they take part of the credit. Or the blame. It’s why magicians like to involve audience members.
It’s All About The Interface: A second screen app is going to have to primarily function as a program guide for the MVPD that releases it. (Independent second screen apps are a tough sell if what you mostly want to do is change the channel.) That interface is where the challenge is. Right now we have a system that was designed for 6 channels pressed into use for 600. We also have an industry in stasis, where no one is moving because no one has to: everyone else is all about preserving the status quo, so why take a risk and rock the boat.
The Dinosaurs Meteor Shower: Remember how the iPhone shook up the cell phone industry? That was another industry where innovation was possible but never pursued because no one could see a valid business reason for innovating. Then the iPhone came along and changed everything and everyone else was left playing catch-up. (They still are.) The same thing is going to happen in the TV industry. Someone (and it might well be Apple) is going to come in and shake up the way we interact with our TVs, which will shake up everyone in the industry, the MVPDs in particular, and all of a sudden innovation will matter again.
Will you be ready for it?