SAN FRANCISCO—We've come to a crossroads. Up to now, it's been an unexplored spot, an intersection that is attempting to blend the old guard and the new. In one corner, the powerful, long-running powerhouse of broadcasting; and in the other, the impish, unpredictable field of social media.
The combination of the two may offer up an end goal that the professional video industry has long been hoping to reach: to actively connect—and reconnect again and again—with viewers. Whether it's to gather reaction, gauge opinion, develop brand preferences or cement station loyalty, the possibilities inherent in social media are proving to have an irresistible appeal to broadcasting.
Networks have begun to embrace the opportunities inherent in the second screen. No longer a threat, these mobile devices are allowing networks like Fox— with its primetime drama "Bones"—to capture viewers and keep them engaged. ConnecTV is built around a proprietary algorithm that uses embedded audio coding within a television signal to communicate with the second screen device. The resulting solution is a detailed, companion experience to what you're seeing on TV. "With broadcasting, there is an odd detachment from our audience that we've learned to overcome as best we can by using ratings and research," said Roger Keating, senior vice president of digital media at Hearst Television. "People enjoy our programming from within the confines of their home; we can't see their reactions. But if harnessed properly, social media can change all that. It turns every episode, every newscast into a live focus group. We'll know instantly the pulse of the show, the overriding sentiment, what parts draw the most heat. And that'll make us better programmers."
Despite the initial wary eye that broadcasting had for what's being dubbed the "second screen," and its social media clique, broadcast networks and local stations, as well as cable and satellite, have slowly begun to embrace this phenomenon. By pairing a social media component with traditional broadcast solutions, networks are using social media to do everything anew: sensationalize the debut of a new program, exchange info with viewers, encourage speculation on upcoming programming and test their interests.
BOOST AUDIENCE ENGAGEMENT
Several companies have moved to introduce broadcast/social media technology solutions. Miranda, for one, has taken its traditional broadcast graphics technology and partnered with a software firm to create a bundled solution that has the ability to display viewer's messages on-air. Using the Vertigo XG and software from Quest Research & Development, stations can use pre-set templates to display a Twitter feed. The system displays social media messages along with more traditional graphics, and messages can be filtered or moderated so that inappropriate comments aren't flooding on-air, said Boromy Ung, market segment manager at Miranda in Montreal.
"Now with social media, we can offer an interaction between [TV] host and guest, and viewers are proving to be more engaged when they're able to directly express an opinion," he said.
That's one of the primary goals of many solutions coming to market: to help stations boost audience engagement by putting them directly in touch with the programs they're watching.
The Weather Channel has integrated a social media portal into its ESP:LIVE storm tracking and Fusion weather graphics solutions to help broadcasters more easily integrate social media conversations into their every day rundowns. Weather has proven to hold a unique spot in the broadcast newsroom, one that is proving to be an ideal fit for social media, said Bill Boss, vice president of production development for Weather Central.
"In a lot of ways [weather] is a good fit, more so than some other positions within the newsroom, because the weather staff is often doing quite a bit in the community; they're asked to visit schools, they're asked on the street to talk about the weather," Boss said. "Social media is an ideal fit for the weather area, because it's a good way for the weather team to engage the viewers, particularly younger viewers."
It's no surprise that—at least initially—much of the broadcast industry was taken aback by the potential threat of the second screen. A recent study by Razorfish and Yahoo estimates that 80 percent of viewers today are "mobile multitasking," sitting in front of their TV screen with a secondary mobile device in hand—a trend that seemed to add to the ongoing concern over audience fragmentation from ad-skipping DVRs and online video streaming.
"Anything new such as the Internet or VOD is often initially seen as a threat, because that means there are more and more ways to consume content," Ung said. "But it was just a matter of the technology evolving. The opportunities have appeared for social media to create additional sponsorship opportunities."
Earlier this year, for its primetime drama "Bones," Fox rolled out a companion app for mobile devices that encourages TV viewers to keep simultaneous tabs on the online and social media aspects of "Bones" while it airs, such as gathering unique details that are found only online and interacting directly with other fans as they watch the live show. With that 80 percent of television viewers busily tapping away at a mobile device while they watch forensic science unfold, networks are finding opportunities to retain and divert viewership back to the program at hand.
ABC has taken a similar tactic with its drama "Grey's Anatomy." The network worked with the Nielsen Company and their Media-Synch Platform, which allows mobile apps to automatically detect and synchronize with TV programming using audio watermarks. The app allows viewers to engage with specific moments in the episodes, access companion content like polls and trivia, and interact with advertising aired during the show.
Reality TV, too, is now in on the act. One of television's biggest producers, Mark Burnett Productions, recently announced a plan to team with the technology company ACTV8 to create interactive second-screen experiences for his programs.
The trend extends to satellite and broadband, too. Last fall, DirecTV announced a deal with Miso, a social TV app company, which would allow for synchronized viewing of on-air programs and social media apps on a mobile device. Likewise, the U-verse streaming system from AT&T has linked up with a handful of social media firms, including Miso and TV Foundry, to allow viewers to share what they're watching and be linked with new content.
Station groups, too are following suit. In November, Silicon Valley firm ConnecTV announced a partnership with 10 broadcast groups that would create a near-instant sync between a television program and a second screen experience, according to Stacy Jolna, cofounder and CMO of ConnecTV. The solution is built around proprietary technology that begins by listening and then recognizing the audio signal to communicate with the second screen device.
The resulting solution is a detailed, companion experience to what you're seeing on TV, he said. It builds on a typical TV-watching experience by allowing viewers to interact with other fans watching the same program—while simultaneously providing a range of related content and advertising opportunities that are directly linked to the program, he said.
For example, when watching Derek Jeter at bat during a Yankees game, the ConnecTV service would bring up his batting stats, which would change with every swing; allow viewers to post messages via Twitter or Facebook; and let friends chat simultaneously with one another. When a viewer sits down to watch a television program with a mobile device in hand, the ConnecTV system automatically synchronizes relevant content onto that second screen. As part of the partnership, broadcasters will have local advertising inventory appear within ConnecTV to help drive program promotions for local ad sales staff, Jolna said.
"While the rapid rise of social media is an undeniable phenomenon, harnessing social chatter to enhance the TV viewing experience is still very much in its infancy," Keating said. "Through this partnership, we're now in a position to influence how this space develops. We love that people are chatting about our shows—we want to facilitate and participate in that conversation. And if it takes off, we stand to benefit financially as well."
The group's founders were convinced that there was an opportunity to promote the TV experience in a new way after watching mobile devices undergo enormous growth and then seeing those same owners begin to watch TV while using second-screen devices.
"There are new ways of connecting, new ways of advertising, new sways of promoting," Jolna said. "This would really light up the TV experience for consumers."
For certain, the introduction of the second screen into the broadcast space is a unique one. It will be up to broadcasters, however, to decide if social media remains a sideshow act, or becomes a permanent piece of the broadcasting arsenal.
"It used to be that the only personal connection you had with any on-air talent was if you say them at an event," the Weather Channel's Boss said. "[Social media] is a way to really communicate with and engage viewers in a conversation.
"[Social media] is a valuable thing that they can't ignore."
Susan Ashworth is the former editor of TV Technology. In addition to her work covering the broadcast television industry, she has served as editor of two housing finance magazines and written about topics as varied as education, radio, chess, music and sports. Outside of her life as a writer, she recently served as president of a local nonprofit organization supporting girls in baseball.
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