July 14, 2009

The future of television: Social TV

JP Rangaswami

JD LasicaBehind closed doors in offices from the media centers of New York to the entertainment capital of Hollywood, content programmers and code jockeys are no doubt trying to figure out how to marry traditional television with social networking.

Does the lean-forward experience, interactivity and backchannel chatter of social networks have a place in the tightly controlled, lean-back world of television? I’m among those who believe the two will wed in a satisfying way, though we’re likely five to 10 years from that happening. I blogged about Intel and Yahoo’s experiments with the Cinematic Internet (or Widget Channel TV) last year, and I’ve written over the years about the largely discredited experiments with “interactive television.”

But a week ago today, in the corporate offices of BT in London, the Traveling Geeks were treated to a 10-minute presentation by Tanya Goldhaber, a graduate student at MIT just finishing up an eight-week internship at BT, about “Social TV.” We were so intrigued that we kept tossing questions to her well after her allotted time.

Peer-influenced viewership

Image representing Boxee as depicted in CrunchBase
Image via CrunchBase

As audiences continue to fragment, as more of us multitask with laptops on our laps while we’re watching TV, as the major social networks continue to amass millions of more members each week, and as the Internet finally comes to our living rooms with a new generation of devices like Boxee, it’s only a matter of time before television becomes social.

Goldhaber showed some screenshots of what a prototype social TV screen might look like. (Prototypes I’ve seen at the Intel Developers Network and at LinkTV a few months ago take it in similar if somewhat different directions.)

I suspect most of us don’t want to see a CNN-like crawl of our friends’ comments at the bottom of our prime-time programming. But I certainly would like to know if my friends were enthralled by a one-time PBS special, or if DirecTV was televising the ninth inning of a no-hit game, or if one of my friends was interviewed by a news crew.

Goldhaber noted that today’s Electronic Program Guides are all but impossible to navigate, and she cited studies that people would rather get viewing recommendations from a friend than from a computer. In survey of TV viewers, 37% of respondents said they started watching their favorite TV show because of a friend’s recommendation or word of mouth.

I asked Goldhaber if, a few years out, social networks might lead to “swarming behavior” among TV viewers, causing quick spikes in viewership for little-known niche programs based on social influencers’ actions. Certainly possible, she said.

I’d be intrigued by a system that automatically feeds me information about what my friends are collectively watching, instead of having to wait for them to tell me through a kind of tweet burst. And I’d also be interested by a peer, or friend of friends, recommendation system that elevates obscure but high-quality independent Web programs.

Social TV could reshape the television landscape — which is why you’ll never see the major networks lead this transformation. Like Napster and Apple in the music industry, the innovation will come from the bottom up, well outside of the media and entertainment industries.

BT and open source

I’ll be honest: Before I visited the UK, I assumed that BT was Britain’s version of AT&T: monolithic, imposing, not terribly open to innovation. An evening of conversations and an afternoon of presentations at BT has disabused me of that notion.

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