Social TV, or the Return of Television

Article  by  Laurent ESPOSITO  •  Published 13.04.2011  •  Updated 14.04.2011
Illustration de la TV Social avec une télécommande par téléphone
How do television viewers use social networks in their choice of programs, communication with one another and participation in games and other activities associated with programs?


Watching television is a collective activity by nature, generating social relationships even if the viewer is alone in front of the screen. The sociologist and media specialist Dominique Wolton explains this, saying that "our societies require social bonds because they are so large and multiple, and, by consequence, abstract. Television participates in this democratic model insofar as it is like a cultural counterpart to universal suffrage".

Television, as a medium of information, education and entertainment, is capable of uniting large audiences. Through the transmission of sound and animated images, this incarnation of hot media makes it possible to broadcast events to millions of screens simultaneously – emotional, shared events such as Man's first steps on the Moon, the 9/11 attacks, or the French World Cup victory. It is also the medium par excellence for what Roman Jakobson defines as the phatic function. All of us have, at one time or another, entered into a conversation about a television program we or someone else watched the previous night. Television is, by its very essence, a medium of sharing and conversations that transcends the societal dimension of the collective and the social dimension of the individual.

"Interactive" Television in the Era of the Social Web

Vertical and conversational interactivity between the television industry and the public is nothing new. Since the days of ORTF's[+] NoteThe Office de Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française, which produced public radio and television in France between 1964 and 1974.X   [1] mythic switchboard, text messaging, then webcams and social networks such as Twitter and Facebook have taken up the reins. Viewers of certain television programs can express themselves directly from their living rooms, and this form of electronic interactivity supplements a television station's downstream signal with an upstream current – the "voice" of the audience.

With the development of Web 2.0 – both communal and collaborative thanks to simple and intuitive tools such as blogs, forums, chat services and social networks – innovation is now found in the horizontal relationships created between viewers, without the necessity of television stations making any additional contributions. In the digital universe as in the social sphere in general, the majority of conversations concerning television go on completely unnoticed by audiovisual industry actors.
The industry's main concerns have been brought to light by the conversational and interactive phenomenon known as Social TV, which includes listening to viewers, helping them choose a program, getting them to interact with a program, making them into brand ambassadors and securing their loyalty.
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The Technological Trends of Social TV

Under pressure from digital technology, the very DNA of television is evolving: there has been an explosion in the number of channels offered by television and Web TV, in the breakthrough of consumption based on demand (Catch up TV, Video on Demand, Youtube, Dailymotion, and a multiplication of video screens (TV, computer, tablet, video game console, mobile phone) and networks (TNT[+] NoteTélévision Numérique Terrestre, France's digital terrestrial television service.X [2], cable, satellite, ADSL, WiFi, 3G), as well as live discussions about television programs and viralization of contents on social networks (Facebook, Twitter, MSN Messenger).

While analog television, which remains a linear mass medium, prepares to be replaced by DTT (Digital Terrestrial Television) by late 2011, the medium of television is in the midst of a progressive transformation into hyper-television: a uni-medium where everybody is their own director of programming, but also a hyper-medium where every "spect-actor" becomes a broadcaster of content via the web, of opinion by way of interactive feedback streams, and of recommendations through social media.
With the massive deployment of connected terminals such as descramblers from media service providers (Freebox, Livebox, Dartybox, Bbox, Neuf Box, SFR, NC Box, Le Cube Canal+), Smart TVs (televisions connected through Connect TV Yahoo, Google TV, HbbTV, or Apple TV), gaming consoles (Canal+ on Xbox Live), tablets (iPad, Galaxy Tab, Archos) and smartphones that favor interactivity with programs, a "TV 2.0" is taking shape.
This innovative turn in television is thought of as segmented, occasionally on-demand, participative and communal. With its strong social dimension, it engenders new relations at the heart of the audiovisual ecosystem, both vertical (between professionals and the public) and horizontal (among viewers). The key issue for important industry actors (audiovisual producers, advertisers, media agencies, television stations, television package editors, telecommunications service providers and terminal manufacturers) is to master this change in usage.
While industry actors have begun working on new practices and are trying to find an economic model, scholars are also becoming interested in Social TV. Marie-José Montpetit, a Canadian scholar, gives a course on the subject at the famous MIT Media Lab in the United States. Montpetit studies how it is possible to make television content more mobile and how to make devices and user experience more social. Her work aims to improve multi-screen and heterogeneous network video ecosystems through new approaches combining better use of resources and maximization of user experience. The May-June 2010 issue of the MIT Technology Review recognized her Applied Research work in Social TV as a "TR10" – one of ten technologies that could change the world.
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Recommendation as a Social Filter in Choosing TV Programs

Just like book suggestions on Amazon's online bookstore or song suggestions on the music listening site Spotify, the recommendation of television programs via social networks is becoming a key function in attracting audiences to watch live television broadcasts or Catch up TV on stations' replay platforms. The social filter has become the new way to tune in to televisual content, says social media specialist Martin Lessard : "The overabundance of channels only reinforces aggregation and filtering a posteriori. How is it possible to effectively know what we would like to listen to? When our network lets quality content percolate through to us, distilled by multiple "retweets" and "Facebook likes", it indicates, like a social version of TV listings, what "makes sense" in our community."

A poll conducted in August 2010 by RedShift Research for Intel shows the influence of social networks on televisual consumption: "42% of 18-24-year-olds use instant messaging tools to discuss broadcasts, and over a third of them publish their comments on social networks. Generation X is also clued in to this phenomenon: 20% of adults use instant messaging and 16% publish their comments on social networks. In addition to this, 22% of us say we want to have a fast and simple way to recommend a program to friends and family."
Professionals were less convinced of the efficiency of social recommendation during IBC's audiovisual High Mass in September 2010. Nonetheless, innovations to help internet-users find TV programs on the small screen – most of them created on the initiative of American start-ups – are multiplying quickly on the web. In December 2010, the TV guide Clicker announced a strategic partnership with Facebook that will allow the Clicker Predict recommendation algorithm to incorporate the opinions of one's friends on the social network alongside over 50 other parameters for automatic personalization.
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Discussing TV programs on Social Networks

Due to their emotional impact, global events lend themselves especially well to communication between viewers. When communion can't take place in the intimacy of a living room or within the wider intimacy found in front of a television at a bar, the tools of electronic communication assure the connection between individuals. Technology abolishes physical distance and creates a virtual agora where everybody can express his or her reactions. The generic vectors of interpersonal communication are multiple: text messaging, online chat, exchange on Facebook and Twitter, and more.

The inauguration of Barack Obama on January 20, 2009 was the first truly emblematic moment of Social TV on a global scale. The event, rebroadcast live by CNN's website, was integrated into the Facebook platform, and while watching the streaming video on their computers, Internet users were also able to follow their friends' activity and express themselves in real time with Facebook status updates on the same webpage.
According to the New York Times, the operation was a success. In nine hours, registered 21.3 million connections to its video stream, compared to just 5.3 million on electionday. Facebook also had record activity, with one million status changes – 8,500 of which took place during the first minute of Barack Obama's speech.
In France, TF1 later tried out the same approach by integrating Facebook Live Stream into its site prior to the 2010 World Cup.
Social TV's breakthrough manifests itself through the appearance of tools and social networks dedicated to conversations in front of the little screen. In the United States, there is a plethora of check-in TV sites: Tunerfish, Miso, Hot Potato, Philo, Get Glue, and Clicker. In France, the services offered on the web, and soon on the screens of mobile phones, are divided between ParlonsTV for non-linear commentary, and Devantlatele, TweetYourTV and Jakaa for live commentary. Devantlatele and TweetYourTV are tweet aggregators that search social networks for conversations pertaining to television, while Jakaa presents itself as more of a private salon where people come to discuss television and comment on programs.
A study performed on behalf of private British television stations highlighted the fact that these conversational uses would take on greater importance as a second screen (portable computer, smartphone, tablet), used for typing while watching television, came to be more present in the living room. According to a study by Thinkbox and Decipher, more than one in three television viewers makes use of this two-screen arrangement, called a "virtual sofa".
Multi-screen consumption will play a part in the acceleration of Social TV. The 2010 CRÉDOC study on the distribution of information technologies and communication in French society shows that white-collar workers and adolescents already spend more time on the Internet than in front of the television. The study also calls attention to the fact that "approximately one person in seven watches television through his or her computer. 15% of French people use the Internet to watch television on their computers (+1% per year; the percentage of internet-users concerned remains at a steady 20%). Once again, the youngest internet-users distinguish themselves: 31% of adolescents watch television on a computer. Groups with the most economic and cultural capital are also concerned more often: 22% of white-collar workers, 21% of college graduates, and 20% of those with large incomes."
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Contributing to the Co-Creation of Television Content

Beyond the social filter and interpersonal exchanges, Social TV manifests itself in program participation, where viewers are called to contribute to the content before, during and after broadcast.

The collaborative American TV show Karma Bar on Current TV, the comedy Bad Girls Club on Oxygen and its experimentations with Twitter phenomenon during the MTV Video Music Awards with guest star Justin Bieber, or, closer to those in Europe, the participative documentary Citizen Maria on Arte, are all in this vein.
By and large, television stations hope to capitalize on their ephemeral television audiences with the addition of a before and an after on digital screens, whether it's the televised talent show X-Factor on the British channel ITV, with its 2.3 million fans on Facebook, or the reality TV show Secret Story on TF1, with its 450,000 videos watched per week thanks to its webisode, "The After Secret". In mass marketing terms, after having attracted a new client, the importance is to secure his or her loyalty, since the creation of brand loyalty costs less than the hunt for new clients and offers a better return on its investment.
Program brands, like station brands, invest in social networks. They attempt to build a continuity of service through narrative intrigue before, during and after broadcast. We often speak of cross-media (the same content on different screens) or transmedia (specific contents and narration for each screen), and the purpose of these multi-broadcast and co-creation operations is that they both engage viewers and maximize "client life-span".
This logic of extension, development of consumer loyalty and monetization prevails in the launching of a game application dedicated to fans of the musical series Glee, where the "Gleeks" can get addicted to karaoke on their iPhones or iPads for $0.99.
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The Challenge of Adapting Marketing Methods to Internet Media

In light of the individualization of televisual consumption, the recreation of social relationships and the sharing of experiences, information and emotions around a program has become an important matter for viewers in the digital age.

The audiovisual industry's economic actors are thus attempting to adapt their approach to consumers by working on their listening skills (co-creating with the public) and drawing on social networks to better distribute content and direct attention. At the same time, they are attempting to develop new economic models without negatively affecting current revenues. With behavioral databases, fan pages on Facebook and extremely targeted marketing, the "CRMization" (Customer Relationship Management) of media is on the march: "Tell me who you are and what you like, and I'll recommend the content best suited to your tastes!"
The new process of creating and distributing content for television is based on a continuous relationship with viewers, where the public is invited to co-create content with producers and television stations.
While "listening" and "promotional marketing" are the keys to success in traditional client relations, client relations now needs to incorporate a third pillar, "community management"[+] NoteIt is interesting to note that this term was used very often in 2010, especially in France, before being replaced by the term "curator". Regardless of nomenclature, the question remains one of consumer relations management in social networks and the transmission of information through these networks.X [3] in order to take social networks and new communication tools (smartphones, tablets, 3D, etc.) into account.
Together, "listening", "promotional marketing" and "community management" constitute the three pillars of Social TV's client relations:

- Listening is the capacity to study customer needs, understand their uses of media, analyze their conversations and formulate opinions about their contributions.
- Promotional marketing is the attempt to initiate targeted communications involving TV influencers and getting content to "go viral" through viewer recommendations.
- Community Management secures customer loyalty through interactivity and by valuing the public.
Once these three factors are in place, they complete one another naturally and create a virtuous circle.

 Social TV requires industry actors and the audiovisual chain of production to take viewer opinion into account ("listening") in order to make wisely adapted and targeted actions ("promotional marketing"). Television stations are looking to turn their viewers into "spect-actors" by focusing on co-creation and the public's circulation of enriched content. Since the television set is no longer the only receiver for televisual programs, professionals in the field are finding they have to add interactive and social dimensions to their content in order to render them consumable and, most importantly, transmittable, regardless of broadcast channel or screen used to view the content.
These pillars, with social networks being of particular importance, let viewers continue the dialogue after the Hertzian broadcast of a program by keeping it alive through other means of transmission. The goal is to be present to viewers on all screens and to secure their loyalty with new services. The danger, though, is to "wear out" the viewer by being too intrusive and not sufficiently adapting messages and content, which explains why the management of client relations and of the means of transmission is so important.
Due to their native interactivity, connected digital terminals engage both audiovisual consumers and actors within the framework of Social TV. In this constantly changing environment of innovative content and services, the key to success for TV 2.0 will be industry professionals' ability to enter a dialogue with the public in order to better anticipate their needs and to make them into ambassador clients.
Up and down the value chain, TV broadcasters, audiovisual producers and TV package distributors have the possibility of becoming the new infomediaries. Those who "listen" and "speak" with viewers will take control of these bidirectional and multi-screen logics and become the founders of a new economy for the audiovisual industry. With Social TV, we are already moving progressively from an attention economy to an engagement economy.

Translated from the French by Jacob Bromberg.

Photo Credit : Feeding The Puppy
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  • 1. The Office de Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française, which produced public radio and television in France between 1964 and 1974.
  • 2. Télévision Numérique Terrestre, France's digital terrestrial television service.
  • 3. It is interesting to note that this term was used very often in 2010, especially in France, before being replaced by the term "curator". Regardless of nomenclature, the question remains one of consumer relations management in social networks and the transmission of information through these networks.
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