Social TV: Viewers Aren’t Limited to Yelling at the Screen

By Brian Ring, Contributing Editor

Note: Over the past few weeks, I’ve been prepping to moderate a panel titled Social Media and the Live Viewer Connection. It’ll be at the LiveTV: LA event — produced by SVG, TV Newscheck, and Variety — on Nov. 17. I’m excited about it, since I’m obsessed with tracking social media and TV. My third tracking survey on the subject is due out next month; it’s called the Social TV Index. But don’t be fooled: Social TV is just a handy buzzword.

What a week for politics as live sport!

24 million viewers tuned in to watch the Republican debate on Fox News. The Donald stirs up controversy, but he’s terrific for the TV biz!

Bench-clearing brawls, controversial officiating, and moments deserving of DVR instant replay — there’s nothing quite like the horse race called American politics.

But wait, what does that number mean?

Television seems to have entered an age of perplexity. After 18 years in the business, I was overdue for a Nielsen refresh.

TV measurement is hard — and critical for the health of the business. Although people can argue about the flaws in the Nielsen methodology — and no system is perfect — what stands out is that, even at the most basic level, the TV planet and the online-video planet are still galaxies apart.

A Nielsen “million” is not the same number that, for example, Recode refers to in a post titled “Facebook Users Notching Four Billion Views a Day.”

The great news is that both Facebook and Twitter finally seem to have settled on a similar definition of a video view. The metric reflects when a video has been played for at least 3 seconds. (We assume it’s being watched by a human being.) Hooray! Agreement itself is an encouraging starting point.

As for the 24 million viewers that Nielsen counts? Well, that number is an average across the entire two-hour program period. Think about that. Or let me do it for you: by the math used for Facebook/Twitter “views,” the primary debate scored 57.6 billion views.

And that’s why Social + TV or Social TV or whatever buzzword you’d prefer is so important to the business.

I have a loose definition of Social TV. The term might not work for everyone, but it’s as good as we’ve got. It’s broad enough to live and grow in meaning and yet specific enough to evoke Internet, digital, and mobile.

To me, Social TV is about three things: (1) audience measurement, (2) marketing/promotion/driving tune-in, and (3) content experience.

And sometimes it’s about all three at the same time.

Social TV is the enabler for the most significant advance in audience measurement since the active/passive electronic people meter was rolled out in 2005. By connecting the physical, lean-back television experience with just about any activity on a smartphone, programmers can learn a wide range of details about their audiences that they never had access to before. If you make content, knowing your audience is a positive.

Social TV is also definitively driving tune-in. On Aug. 10, the NFL announced a re-up of its partnership with Twitter, citing a top-line commitment to nearly three times “more video highlights and pictures of games in progress.”

The emphasis is mine, and the significance is that these highlights are distributed instantly. Or as fast as possible, which is pretty quick, thanks to Mike Folgner and the SnappyTV team. SnappyTV pioneered cloud-based clipping and was sold to Twitter in 2014.

Instant highlights that show up in your Twitter is an awesome experience. (Yes, there are fans who can’t catch the game but would still like to stay up to date.)

The deal may boost the real-time highlights by a factor of three, according to an AP report. More important, the highlights will be more widely distributed on the platform. For example, since I’m a baseball fan who might enjoy NFL clips but not enough to Follow them, I’ll probably benefit from the new deal.

Social-video–clipping companies like SnappyTV, Whipclip, and Clippit are taking Social TV into its second generation. The way I see it, this is a long march toward a new kind of channel-surfing /content-discovery experience that will be central to the marketing of live TV in the coming years.

Perhaps most important, Social TV is about improving the content experience itself by drawing the audience into behavior that is more interactive and participatory. Voting, UGC submissions, feedback, questions for on-air talent — these are the things that Facebook and Twitter are ready-made for.

Audience feedback isn’t new to the media business. Live studio audiences, radio call-in shows, and, of course, the massive success of American Idol voting are historical examples.

But the best illustration of the power of this feedback loop came to me during a wrap-up of the recent Republican primary debate.

Among the many smart people in the world is Steve Schmidt, a Republican strategist who has proved himself exceptionally dialed in to human behavior. He was asked why Donald Trump has gained such a powerful and stable following. He passionately replied, “He is saying out loud what millions of people across this country are screaming at their television sets all night.”

And then it dawned on me. With TV, you express yourself to a glass box. With Social TV, you participate in the conversation.