DURHAM, N.C.—Immersive TV, which lets viewers participate with the broadcaster and interact with other viewers, is blossoming in this age of Twitter and Facebook. The integration of social media with traditional one-way broadcasting—especially for live entertainment, news/weather and sports events—to create a "social TV" experience is generating new opportunities for content and for advertising. It also poses sizeable hurdles to keep on-air talent and audiences engaged.
"The biggest thing right now is the real-time interaction with the talent," says Patricia Hopkins, marketing vice president of Durham, N.C.-based SMT, a technology supplier for studio and social TV systems. "That is a big deal. It is the next best thing to being there and being able to ask questions on the spot. It's very impactful.
"The live interactive aspect and the anticipation of the possibility of having viewers' social media messages read and responded to on the air is very appealing," she adds. "The success has been hard to measure in ratings, but networks know that they have attracted more viewers with longer viewing time."
SOCIAL TV CAPABILITIES
SMT, which shortened its name early this year from SportsMedia Technology Corp., has initially focused on supplying social TV capabilities to its traditional clients, such as NBC (where SMT tools were used for the Triple Crown thoroughbred race telecasts, Sunday Night Football and NBC Sports Talk, formerly known as Versus), CBS Sports Network, Golf Channel and the MLB [Major League Baseball] Network. For Versus' coverage of the Tour de France bicycle race in July, SMT provided social TV technology. It has also supplied viewer-input capture and processing capabilities for award shows on BET, TNT and for special projects, such as the Ford Social Media Lounge during the BET 11 Awards.
SMT's solutions consist of real-time data and interface graphics technology for live sports and entertainment events, most of which are customized as part of an overall graphic presentation, according to Hopkins. Templates are sometimes involved "in the parsing of the live feeds" such as "interfaces to support the social network feeds through the SMT DMX Switchboard." Although the social TV data can be real-time synchronized to the TV shows, some programmers install time-delays so that they can police inappropriate words or messages into the system.
The company's core products, such as the GOTO Board, an interactive touchscreen display used by on-air talent, are used to present social media input during a show. Hopkins notes, for example, that BET used a GOTO Board to display Twitter feeds for its "106 and Park" music show for a couple of seasons. Now it has added Facebook to the social media segment of the weekly show.
CBSSportsGang stays in touch with its viewers via its Twitter feed. Among SMT's most ambitious social projects this years was the MLB "FanCave," (@MLBFanCave on Twitter), a first-of-its-kind immersive experience using an always-on venue in Manhattan's Greenwich Village. Two hosts (winners of an MLB online contest that attracted 10,000 entries) sat in the FanCave every day for the 2011 baseball season, watching all 2,430 regular season games; they're still sitting there through the post-season playoffs.
As they watch the games, the fans chronicle their experiences, viewpoints and comments via Twitter, Facebook and the MLB Network, where they make periodic video appearances. Passersby can watch the FanCave duo by peering into the large windows surrounding the "cave" space.
Hopkins says that broadcasters are recognizing the value of integrating social media into the increasingly graphic systems used for full coverage of events.
"We are able to create an interactive environment for broadcasters," she explains. Although social TV is often dismissed as a fad appealing to 18 to 28 year olds, Hopkins suggests that the audience is far broader. She acknowledges that the core users skew young, but she says that broadcasters are finding "older folks are also joining in when they feel a need to interact." She cites the Golf Channel's "Morning Drive," which attracts an older audience, as an example of how social TV knows no age barriers.
"In addition, our traditional network clients find social media a way to bring in the younger audiences," she adds.
SMT has developed social TV capabilities for shows in as little as three days, although more complex interactivity requires three to four weeks, Hopkins says. The greatest value of social TV is that it "gives the audience a voice," she adds. "Networks can use social media to do informal, immediate focus groups to understand the viewer's sentiments and guide programming. We'll be seeing more and more of it in TV programming."
In an unrelated project, the New York Giants, in a first for an NFL team, integrated Twitter into live TV broadcasts and in-stadium videos as well as pre- and post-game shows during the preseason games. Mass Relevance, an Austin, Texas-based company that also provides technology to ABC, CBS News, A&E Networks and CNN, supplied the system that lets fans tweet about their favorite players, and the Giants provided a team member each week to Twitter chat with fans.
Affirming broadcasters' growing appetite for social media are the findings that 86 percent of TV stations now integrate such features into their operations. The latest annual survey, conducted by the Radio TV Digital News Association and Hofstra University, identified a shift from "promotional" to "conversational" uses of social media, usually integrated with news, sports and other programming.
"There appears to have been a shift in the last year from using social media primarily as a promotional tool to using it heavily—if not primarily—to have conversations with the audience," explains independent researcher Bob Papper, who has managed the survey for more than a decade. Among this year's findings: most news directors seek "comments, feedback or interaction" from social media connections.
There's already a usage review service to monitor social TV usage. Trendrr keeps track of TV shows attracting the most social involvement. In a recent top 10 roster of broadcast TV show, Fox's "Family Guy" and "The Simpsons" far out-distanced other broadcast network programs, while HBO's "True Blood" had almost twice as much "daily social activity" as runner up "Entourage." Both were far ahead of any other cable programs.
ESPN, which has plunged into countless interactive and social media projects, has incorporated social TV features into the daily Sports Nation and its College GameDay shows. On Sports Nation, hosts Colin Cowherd and Michelle Beadle collect and post viewers' comments on Twitter (@SportsNation), Facebook and ESPN.com's webpage for the show. An ESPN official says the process "makes fans the third host of the show."
Social TV? There Are Apps for That
Smartphone apps combining social networking and traditional television watching have become fairly popular as of late. Several apps worthy of note:
GetGlue—GetGlue allows users to check-in and share what they're watching, listening to or reading on with friends, get fresh recommendations, exclusive "stickers," discounts and other rewards from GetGlue partners. The New York-based company is currently working with more than 50 major entertainment companies and TimeWarner Investments is among its investors.
The company recently announced its first partnership with a local TV station. The Atlanta NBC affiliate, Gannett-owned WXIA will have its locally produced newscasts included in the GetGlue database, allowing viewers to check in to local newscasts and earn stickers. The idea is to connect viewers with common media interests and likes. Users are rewarded for the check-ins with virtual stickers unique to each show. GetGlue's check-ins can be shared within the network's community and on Facebook and Twitter.
Miso—Similar to GetGlue, Miso allows users to share what they are watching with friends, post to social networks and connect with other fans around their favorite shows. Miso is funded by Google Ventures, Hearst Interactive Media, among other investors and is based in San Francisco.
Last month, Miso launched a partnership with DirecTV in what it claims is the first social TV app synchronized with TV viewing, enabling real-time social features that change based on what viewers are watching. The new integrated free iPhone app shows viewers what's currently on the DirecTV lineup, and as viewers switch channels, changes with it. The phone has to be on the same Wi-Fi network as the DirecTV Internet-enabled receiver. Miso says its second screen experience "introduces the first social television app that take advantage of DirecTV's set-top boxes' unique ability to communicate with mobile and tablet apps over the customer's home network." Five full-time ESPN employees, plus many part-time contributors, run the social media features. A company spokeswoman says that social features are being "incorporated into everything we do."
SMT does not make their platform available to local broadcasters—yet. "We are not at this time selling our social media services to local TV broadcasters," Hopkins says. "We've had our hands full keep up with the demand right now. It is something we may pursue in the future."
CROSS PLATFORM DEVELOPMENTS
The recent spate of social TV development fulfills the decades-old promise to bring viewers into the program. Predictably, various companies take different approaches to the social TV challenge. For example, San Francisco start-up Miso last month cut a deal with DirecTV, which lets viewers "tell" their friends what they are watching in real time. By coordinating through the DirecTV set-top box, friends can see when each other have changed channels and, via mobile handsets or other devices, carry on conversations about the current show they are all watching. The service includes features for auto-synching advertising, which has not yet been deployed.
Miso CEO Somrat Niyogi says he expects to unveil additional such deals with multichannel video distributors by year end, but offers no hints about which cable or telco TV firms will carry the social TV venture, which is financed in part by Google.
As social TV momentum grows – drawing on viewer's increased use of "apps" on their mobile handsets and tablets—networks, cable operators and local stations are experimenting with new ways to exploit the relationship. Comcast has been offering "TunerFish" for more than a year, letting viewers use the social discovery engine for TV, movies, and online video. Brian Curtis, senior director-product management at the cable operator's "search and discovery" unit, points out that the company's "next-generation set-top box experience" will let viewers know what their Facebook friends are watching and guide them to those shows. That process will include integrating the social media with Xfinity TV for the Web, tablets and mobile Xcalibur (Comcast's next-generation STB), Curtis says.
The social TV juggernaut, in all its iterations, continues to evolve. Last month, Jinni, an Israeli firm, introduced its "taste-and-mood based discovery tools," software that lets viewers find shows they want to see, based on a variety of inputs. The company's "intuitive discovery tools" include semantic search, personalized recommendations, smart social discovery and mood-base discovery" capabilities. Jinni's first customer is Microsoft, which is initially focused on Internet video delivered via Web-connected Xbox 360 consoles.
"Jinni semantic discovery service can power the user experience anywhere a customer makes a decision about what to [watch]," says the company's CEO/Founder Yosi Glick. "Jinni's smart social TV features unleash the 'water cooler effect' by utilizing taste proximity between users to identify others who have similar taste in entertainment and therefore are trusted sources of social recommendations."
Although social TV is in its crawl-before-it-can run phase, the overall popularity of social media and the appeal of customized viewing experiences suggest a quick evolution for this latest incarnation of interactive television.
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