New ways to socialise

“The opportunity for broadcasters is to figure out how to integrate this social ‘stuff’ into their broadcasts and onto other platforms without losing control of the content and, more importantly, the money.”

There has been a lot of talk recently about the arrival of the connected TV and how it will change things forever. Gone will be the distinction between TV and the web. Gone will be the pricing differential between a TV ad and a web ad.

But perhaps most importantly, gone will be the isolation of watching TV. Yes, we talk about TV being a shared experience with the family in the front room. But family viewing is getting increasingly fragmented as the number of screens in a house increases. Shared viewing may still happen around a live event or a favourite show, but the rest of TV viewing is fragmenting and we are becoming more insulated. As viewing becomes more personal, will we interact less?

Well, not really. In fact, ‘social TV’ is on the rise. Increasingly, the shared viewing experience does not require us to huddle around the TV. As TVs and other devices get connected to the net we are socialising with people in far-flung places, all brought together by a common interest in a particular programme.

The games world has being doing this for years, but the rise of social media on the TV set is the next big thing. Certainly that was a key focal point of the recent MIP TV programming market in Cannes where broadcasters and producers from around the world converge to buy and sell programmes and, increasingly, to figure out where technology is taking us.

Not only did Twitter unveil a site explaining how it plans to work with television and content creators, but broadcasters including ITV, MTV Networks and Channel 4 showed how they are using Facebook and MySpace to engage with their viewers.
Matt Locke, head of education commissioning at Channel 4, talked about creating programming that provides a “social conversation”. Kevin Slavin, CEO of Starling, a startup that brings social media tools to the TV screen, called the trend “co-viewing”, where people use their mobile or their PC to let their friends know what they think about shows. Philip O’Ferrall, digital media head at MTV Networks International, said that broadcasters that don’t embrace social media won’t be in business in four or five years time.

Twitter’s media partnerships manager Chloe Sladden said that Twitter is a Nielsen ratings killer. Traditional audience ratings systems don’t give real-time information about how a programme is faring with the audience as it airs. Twitter is more useful than the EPG because Twitter will tell you what the Twitterati are watching in real-time: “Twitter is a pointing system” that reminds people what is on TV at that moment, said Sladden.

The opportunity for broadcasters is to figure out how to integrate this social ‘stuff’ into their broadcasts and onto other platforms like YouTube and Facebook, and even Twitter, without losing control of the content and, more importantly, the money. The money bit is a going to be a lot more difficult to figure out. Social nets are still relying on advertising to bring in the revenue; Twitter only just announced its own monetisation model and surprise, surprise, it is about ad-funded Tweets, which could backfire with its user base.

Big media players including News Corp have taken a different view, saying that a hybrid model is needed, one that includes finding both acceptable subscription and pay models as well as ad-funded approaches. Given that News Corp includes newspapers, a studio, pay-TV companies and a broadcaster, this is perhaps not surprising.

News Corp’s CEO and chairman of digital, Jon Miller, made the paid-model argument in Cannes, telling the audience in no uncertain terms that this year was the year when the terms of trade between the big platforms like YouTube, Yahoo!, Apple and MSN will be hammered out. “I think we’ll start to see different classes of [digital] experience, and a migration towards different forms of paid models,” Miller told the audience. But it’s not going to be an easy conversation about who gets what and how much.

Miller says the “agency model” being offered by Apple is the future: this is where a publisher or the owner of the content sells to the end consumer and gives a commission to the “agent” – in this case Apple –  of say 30% of the sale price.

News Corp has one of the largest social media sites in MySpace, but Miller admits it has lost its mojo somewhat – it has 120 million users compared with Facebook’s 400 million. He thinks that MySpace can come back with a renewed emphasis on being a place where you find people you don’t know, versus Facebook which is all about people you already know.

MySpace’s resurrection remains to be seen, but the fact of social media being an ongoing and developing trend is clear. Social networking and blogging is on the rise and not just amongst the young. According to KPMG’s recent UK media and entertainment barometer report 45-54 years olds showed the biggest increase in social networking usage. But that is probably because they were slower to catch on in the first place. Tweet that.

Kate Bulkley is a broadcaster and writer specialising in media and telecommunications. [email protected].