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TV gets social, thanks to Web

In the Internet era, viewers chat with fellow fans as they watch - giving the old medium new life

By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / February 27, 2012
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The Internet might be the best thing that has ever happened to television.

Instead of fading away as millions of people switch from channel surfing to Web browsing, watching TV is as popular as ever. Americans spend about 4 1/2 hours a day in front of the tube, according to Nielsen Co.

The difference is that we tend to be logged onto the Internet at the same time, often holding a second screen - a device like a smartphone or tablet computer - as we peer at the big set on the wall. We connect to social networks like Twitter and Facebook to chat with friends and family members about our favorite shows, or even the most amusing commercials.

The trend has a name, “social TV.’’ And Mike Sheehan, chief executive of the Boston advertising agency Hill Holliday, said it is transforming every aspect of the older medium.

“I don’t think five years ago anyone envisioned what social media would do for television,’’ Sheehan said, adding that people in the industry, from advertising executives to show producers, value strong Internet buzz just as highly as strong Nielsen ratings. “All our clients are dying to be part of it.’’

Social TV is the theme of TVnext 2012, a daylong series of discussions on the evolution of television that is being held today at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. Sponsored by Hill Holliday, the event will feature speakers from the research company Nielsen Co., the NBC network, Microsoft Corp.’s Xbox video game division, and other new- and old-media organizations.

Watching TV has always been a social activity in one way or another, from the 1940s, when neighbors would gather at the home with the first local television set to watch Milton Berle, to later decades, when popular shows like the sitcom “All in the Family’’ would generate conversations around the water cooler.

But in the Internet era, viewers can chat with fellow fans anywhere, even around the world, and they can do it as they watch, in real time.

This year’s Super Bowl, for example, was more than a football game watched by 111 million people in the United States. It was also the occasion for a gigantic online gathering; viewers posted more than 12 million Super Bowl comments on social networking services like Facebook and Twitter as the game was played. One week later, viewers posted 13 million comments during the network broadcast of the music industry’s Grammy Awards.

Viewers also post thousands of messages about everyday programming like sitcoms and dramas. In the process, they are providing entertainment and advertising executives with a new way to understand the tastes and interests of viewers.

“It’s giving us this real-time feedback loop the likes of which television has never had before,’’ said Mike Proulx, Hill Holliday’s director of social media and coauthor of “Social TV,’’ a new book on the melding of Internet and television.

Advertisers and broadcasters have begun using social TV data to supplement their reliance on traditional viewership ratings services.

Christy Tanner, executive vice president of TVGuide Digital, said her TVGuide.com website decides whether to post articles about a particular show partly by measuring its popularity among social media viewers.

“We write more about ‘Glee’ and ‘The Vampire Diaries’ than we might if we only looked at Nielsen ratings,’’ because of the strong social TV “buzz’’ these shows generate, Tanner said.

Twitter and Facebook are favorite venues for online TV discussions, with much of the chatter coming from tablet computers and smartphones. According to Nielsen Co., 40 percent of tablet and smartphone owners use those devices while watching television. Most are just checking e-mail, but 42 percent are visiting a social networking site.

One unexpected impact of social TV is an increase in real-time viewing, as opposed to the later viewing made possible by on-demand services and devices like digital video recorders, because fans want to join in the online discussions that follow immediately when a program airs. Tanner said that social TV viewers are also worried that if they wait to watch a program, it will be ruined by “social spoilers,’’ her term for Facebook and Twitter messages that give away a show’s plot. A new TVGuide Digital survey found that 27 percent of viewers were watching shows in real time for exactly that reason.

A host of companies have created smartphone and tablet apps tailored to social TV viewing. SocialGuide, for instance, follows hundreds of TV broadcasts in real time and tracks how many people are discussing the show on Twitter and Facebook. Users can click on the show of their choice and dive into the discussion. Others, like Miso and GetGlue, let users “check in’’ to their favorite shows and discuss them anytime.

Yahoo Inc.’s IntoNow app can determine what show a person is watching, simply by listening to the audio from the TV’s speakers. The user then sees how many other IntoNow users are watching the same show and can easily communicate with them via Twitter.

“We wanted to make it really really simple to connect with people,’’ said IntoNow cofounder Adam Cahan.

Over time, IntoNow will acquire detailed information about its users’ interests and tastes and will use the data to sell advertising that could then deliver what Cahan called “an enhanced commercial experience.’’ For instance, companies that advertise on a particular show could beam special offers directly to IntoNow users’ smartphones.

Apart from its revenue potential, social TV could help producers fine-tune television shows, for better or worse, by providing information about viewers opinions. For example, the creator of the TV series “Modern Family’’ has said that he and his writers track viewers’ Twitter reaction to the show to see which of their jokes are most effective.

“There’s immediate feedback as to what’s on television and how it’s resonating,’’ Sheehan said. “I think it’s going to lead to improved content.’’

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

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