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Exploring the Art and Science of Social TV

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The technology in the interactive TV space is finally catching up to the vision. Increased broadband penetration coupled with acceptance of the inevitability of IPTV is opening a multitude of new opportunities. Every day seems to bring the announcement of a new entrant in the Startup Sweepstakes. Lately, social TV solutions are the big ticket item.

Social TV is a broadly defined term that encompasses a range of behaviors. Generally, it involves the use of a second screen (smartphone, laptop or tablet computer) to engage with other TV viewers while a program is happening. The problem is that most current social TV applications are simply attempts to mash existing social media platforms onto existing broadcast TV models. But in order to create something that consumers actually find useful, we need to look beyond today's models and examine how people will actually consume video content in an IPTV world.

KIT Digital has spent a great deal of time researching this and has come up with a comprehensive analysis of the "Three Stages of Social TV," which serves as an excellent roadmap for creating successful strategies, experiences and services in this rapidly growing space.

3 Stages

The late John Gardner once stated 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 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 pattern.

Stage 1: Decision Making

The first question is always going to be "what should we watch?"  And the first place we generally turn to is the program guide on the cable box, which makes it the perfect opportunity for a Social TV play.

The viewer is 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 web platforms so popular is that they help us in the decision-making process. Facebook and Twitter help us decide what to read, what videos to watch and what news stories to follow. Yelp helps us decide what restaurants to go to, and FourSquare helps us determine which bars are hopping.

The ability to gather relevant 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, circa 2011.

Your pay TV provider (e.g. BSKYB, 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 1,598 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 would also have one-click options to save shows for future viewing or rent VOD movies. A single click could even put you in touch with customer service, if that's what you needed.

Every movie or show would have its own robust page, with video previews, 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 would also be ample opportunity for targeted advertising and merchandising.

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 an interruption. Particularly if we look at where that 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.

There's another good reason for embedding Social TV in the Decision Making process: the behavior is already there. Viewers are already commenting, rating and reviewing TV programming in surprisingly large numbers.  A social TV app would simply harness that behavior and make the data around it useful to other viewers, particularly if the app was tied to your pay TV subscription. This is the sort of functionality a pure IPTV implementation could provide.

Stage 2: Watching

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

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. This scenario brings up another option: the use of commercials as "social intermissions."

Since we typically 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, website).

This may also ameliorate the effects of something KIT Digital 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 viewers to go online and engage in something social that the whole room is involved in goes a long way to make that behavior acceptable.

So while we don't need to give up on social TV interactions during the Watching stage, we do 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 (Amazing Race, American Idol, etc.) and sports shows are both High Social. Both the clearly defined breaks and the winner/loser dynamic make for easy conversation, at home and online.

This chart helps break it out:

User Propensity

KIT Digital Social Quotient content rating system

But 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 users of the aforementioned Program Guide app will all be watching a show at the same time. Which is why having one-click recording and including shows currently on their DVRs in the listings are both important.

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

In terms of asynchronous sharing, technology currently exists in pure IP systems that allow you to record a show and insert comments that are then attached to specific time codes. That way a friend can watch the same show several hours or even days later and see your comments seemingly in real time. This can even be a group experience, where each new user adds comments on or "likes" previous comments.

To deliver the appropriate social TV watching experience, including the new forms of social advertising and merchandising, the IP-based video system must be informed of the various content types. In support of this we have created a meta tagging system for a social quotient that we call the KIT Digital Social Quotient content rating system. Additional meta tagging is automatically including with existing EPG data describing programming and personal social advertising and merchandising experiences will be delivered in all stages depending on the quotient. New forms of social TV advertising and merchandising will emerge based on the social quotient of the content and the viewer stage.

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 merely 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 BSkyB 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.

The rapid adoption of IP-delivered video (broadband TV) is making interactive TV possible and social for the first time. There are great opportunities for creative content producers, advertisers and merchandisers who leverage consumer behavior to create unique and useful Social TV experiences. Now is the time for pay TV operators to begin exploring the most advanced social TV capabilities that will meet there needs, as those who attract the best content and advertisers to the network are also those who will be attracting the most users.

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