Worldwide watercooler

Social TV is showing small but steady gains as more networks investigate its capabilities, and experiment with turning real-time buzz into brand building.
October 1, 2010

During the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, Twitter users could actually inflate rapper Kanye West’s head while sending messages decrying his now-infamous ‘Imma let you finish’ interruption of teenage country sensation Taylor Swift.

But how? Thanks to a Twitter Tracker data visualization widget on MTV’s website: every tweet that name-checked West caused his profile, and thus the icon representing him – his head – to grow. The initiative is one of several social TV experiments the youth-oriented network has launched over the past two years.

Of course, MTV isn’t the only net creating multi-screen experiences for viewers. A growing number of experiential devices, such as CBS Interactive’s Relay app, launching this fall, History’s Foursquare app for America: The Story of Us, and British network ITV’s live platform have emerged. Each offers variations on the social viewing experience; some are program-based, while others, such as the service from new company Starling (profiled in realscreen‘s May/June 2010 issue) are designed and updated with continuous use in mind.

Still, while MTV is now competing in the social TV space with a growing number of nets, there’s no denying its pioneering moves in the field. In 2008, it introduced the platform Backchannel, a web-based ‘co-viewing’ experience developed in-house that was part gaming engine and part social networking platform that allowed fans of The Hills to interact and compete for screen time with clever comments.

Though Backchannel piqued the industry’s interest in social viewing, MTV’s developers were marshalling a Herculean effort to pull it off and, despite a steady level of participation among Hills addicts, the network has since switched up its social TV strategy.

Nowadays, MTV partners with third-party developers to integrate its programming with existing social media channels, such as Facebook, Twitter and Yahoo! ‘As much as we wanted to enable [the conversation] on our properties in the way that Backchannel did,’ says Suejin Yang, VP product development for and, ‘we also wanted to acknowledge the larger conversation that was happening around some of our bigger franchises.’

Those franchises include reality hits Teen Mom, 16 and Pregnant and the infamously raunchy Jersey Shore. Viewers can log in to during episode premieres to use a chat widget (developed by third-party Gigia) that streams all social network channels into one, continuous chat and see which characters and celebs are being tweeted about the most through a Twitter Tracker data visualization app, developed in-house.

During Jersey Shore the chatter is predictably full of ‘WTFs’, ‘OMGs’ and ‘LOLs’. Yang says Teen Mom viewers, on the other hand, are getting deeper, relating the characters’ plights to their own lives and in some cases initiating personal conversations with each other.

‘If we can harness that social conversation and bring it back to [viewers] in meaningful and unique ways that they can’t experience elsewhere,’ she says, ‘then hopefully we’re really adding value to them and moving the entertainment to another level.’

This fall CBS Interactive is introducing a co-viewership app in partnership with listings site called Relay. Much like geo-location gaming app Foursquare, it allows viewers to ‘check in’ to TV shows (broadcast across all networks), chat and meet likeminded fans. Last month the app launched in beta for iPhone, iPad, Android and Palm Pre and more than 100,000 checked-in during The Bachelorette‘s finale.

When the fall season shifts into high gear, so too will the network’s marketing machine with TV, radio and outdoor ads promoting Relay to the uninitiated. The plan is to make it available via Internet-ready TVs and social media sites, such as Facebook. The benefit of partnering with, says CBS Interactive VP/general manager, entertainment Anthony Soohoo, is the site’s existing user base of 18 million.

‘It’s basically merging traditional TV listings on top of your social graph and adding game mechanics into this product,’ says Soohoo. ‘What we’ve built so far is our first generation, and a first step towards where we see the TV tuner of the future.’

While the service will appeal to viewers of all types of programming – across all networks – Soohoo believes Relay will become ‘another form of liquid crack’ for reality show devotees. He believes comedy viewers will use it to meet other fans, while reality addicts will use it as a real-time companion to hiss and diss during a broadcast. The more people use it, the more valuable it becomes. CBS Interactive’s goal is to have one million users two quarters out, Soohoo says.

In the United Kingdom, social TV successes have largely revolved around factual and live sports programming, but engagement is still relatively low. A recent Deloitte/YouGov survey of 4,000 Britons on the issues impacting television said that while social media helps raise awareness of content, less than one in five viewers uses the Web to comment or discuss a show while watching it on TV.

The number of people actively chattering online during a broadcast is higher among younger viewers: 40% of viewers 18 to 24 said they ‘occasionally’ comment online while watching a show and 46% of respondents in the same age group are ‘fans’ of their favorite shows on Facebook.

Despite the stats, social TV developers say the burgeoning industry is showing small, but steady gains. ‘The great quote that I heard on social media the other day is the return on investment will be that your business will still exist in five years,’ says Tom McDonnell, creative director and managing director for Monterosa, a London-based social TV company. ‘There is a sense that many types of shows now need to live outside the confines of the schedule. If it’s not being talked about tomorrow, then it’s going to be forgotten about.’

Founded seven years ago, Monterosa specializes in real-time productions that merge television broadcasts with the Web. It also runs a live online platform for private broadcaster ITV called ITV Live. McDonnell and his partner Simon Brickle have been creating real-time applications for years, but it wasn’t until March 2009, when their real-time app for fact ent hit The Apprentice took off, that UK broadcasters began paying attention.

Created for BBC and FremantleMedia, The Apprentice Predictor was an online game that allowed viewers to predict which contestant would get fired each week. Viewers could also participate in a curated chat and send in up to 60 messages per second. A live poll that would fluctuate with plot developments kept track of contestants the audiences selected.

‘It was exciting to see if someone made a big mistake,’ says McDonnell. ‘Their popularity went right up because people would change their minds.’

More than 30,000 Britons used the Predictor app and within a year, Monterosa would produce similar multi-screen experiences for factual shows such as Four Weddings, America’s Next Top Model and Come Dine with Me.

Companies such as Monterosa and broadcasters measure social TV success by the conversion rate – the percentage of the audience that goes from passive viewer to active, multi-screen participant. In the UK, producers look at the overnight Broadcasters Audience Research Board (BARB) rating and compare it to the total number of unique visitors to the web game.

Though The Apprentice‘s conversion rate was small, with 0.4% of viewers logging on, McDonnell says it marked the beginning of an upward trend that hit 4.2% (or 76,000 uniques) in May during a social TV-enabled broadcast of game show The Million Pound Drop Live.

Another U.S. network to dabble in social TV for its factual programs is History, which launched a Foursquare page that allows users of the GPS-based check-in service to find out a historical tidbit about that location.

Initially designed to promote the 12-hour documentary miniseries America: The Story of Us in April, the network keeps the app active for its 50,000-odd users with continuous updates. ‘The great thing about History is that we have programming and a network, but we’re also a subject,’ says Anne Marie Granite, History’s director of consumer marketing. ‘If you have it too much based on programming, then once the show is off air [viewers] have nothing else to talk about or base it on.’

Going forward, MTV will continue to partner with third-party developers on small-scale social viewing projects in an effort to do more while spending less. ‘We’ve found if we try to build things in-house we aren’t going to be able to do as much than if we were to partner with outside companies and integrate their products,’ says Yang.

Like other developers, she acknowledges that many viewers aren’t actively multitasking as they watch TV. A large segment of MTV digital consumers are seeking out on-demand content and during broadcasts, primary engagement is still with the boob tube. However, the growing popularity of live broadcasts and platforms such as Ustream are continuing to fuel new opportunities for audiences to respond in real-time.

‘I don’t think we should necessarily shy away because participation is lower,’ she says. ‘If you think about it, the people who choose to participate on multiple screens are potentially your biggest fans and your brand advocates. So you stand to gain a lot from pleasing them and providing them with newer, better and more innovative experiences.’

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.