SocialTV – the biggest threat to the future of television?

I read a tweet by Jeremy Toeman yesterday that said, ‘I think today’s one of those “Stay off twitter, it’s just gonna annoy the snot out of you” days’. I wish I’d heeded his advice – but I didn’t.  I spent some of the day watching the stream from The Social TV Summit and listening to executive after executive trying to define what social TV is, and the value that can be derived from it for networks, programme producers and operators.

First things first… as far as I’m concerned TV always was a social activity.  Whether it was family sat around the main set, friends talking on the telephone – the ‘did you see…’ moments I experienced as my mother called friends to see if they’d been watching one soap opera or another, or colleagues talking about last night’s prime time show over the water cooler, TV has always been a shared experience.  That hasn’t changed.  Nor is it likely to.

Social TV is a buzz word designed to convince viewers that there is something new.  In reality nothing much has changed, except the technology viewers use to interact.

One of the most worrying things I heard more, than a few times, from the speakers yesterday was how TV production companies or broadcasters could raise awareness of their brands using social networks – and this worries me.  TV has been around for more than 80 years and for most of that time the key to success has been delivering content that people want to watch – NOT trying to convince them that channel X is better than channel Y, or communicate a brand vision for one property or another.  Nor has it been about trying to push brand values, or monetize the relationship with viewers.  If the content is right, viewers will talk about it and share it with their friends, family and social networks, without any prompting or incentive from networks, rights owners or service providers. There will be no need for the ‘social levers’ – that were mentioned by one of the panelists at the Social TV Summit. If a show is good, it’s good. Viewers, in the main, don’t care which channel or network it is on.

How do we know? Because it’s a tried and tested recipe. It has delivered sustainable revenue streams for every part of the TV industry value chain – including the technology companies – for close to a century. Evolutions in both technology and consumer experience have delivered higher programme values [broadcast contracts for major league sports, for example, are at all time highs], strong advertising revenues [the local spot advertising in the US is worth around $5bn per year] and given viewers shows that they love.  It has also given them the opportunity to enjoy the shows on more screens than ever before.

So, why change a successful model in an attempt to make a quick buck off the back of a buzzword?  The current models being discussed for Social TV will, I believe, ultimately break it for everybody.  Viewers don’t want to become commodities – milked for every dollar that the networks can get from them.  They pay for content bundles from their Pay TV operators, they watch adverts wrapping the shows, and they buy merchandize.  And they also use existing social networks [on mobile, tablet or personal computer] to talk about it [or be social] with friends, family and colleagues.  Anything that interferes with their enjoyment of the show – and their social TV experience – will, I fear, be to the detriment of the industry.

If viewers feel that they are being shepherded into using social applications simply because it benefits the networks, operators, advertisers or technology companies, they’ll rebel.  After all, they don’t need any of the new applications the industry is presenting them with – they can – and do – have the same [unconstrained] social TV experience using established social networks like Twitter and Facebook.  If viewers decide that they don’t like the ‘managed’ social TV experience, or feel that their quiet enjoyment is being interfered with, they could choose not to watch broadcast TV at all.  In that scenario everybody loses.

Social TV should be about adding value to the TV viewing experience, not about controlling or monetizing it. If we lose sight of that – as I believe many in the industry are – we stand a very real risk of losing the viewer – and that won’t end well for any of us!

The future of TV will be won [and lost] by marketing…

…and a failure to understand this is the biggest threat to Pay TV operators and technology vendors’ prosperity. It’s an industry that I love – and I make the statement as a call to action, before it’s too late.

The situation facing operators and vendors isn’t new, or exclusive to the television industry.  The history of the tech industry is littered with great products and services that fell by the wayside because they failed to capture the imagination of their intended audience or failed to provide a compelling reason for people to buy.  Unless it acts quickly the TV industry runs the serious risk of failing to make the case for why people should want to pay money for social and connected TV applications, multi-screen, hybrid and TV Everywhere services.  We’ve been talking about them for years… but it appears that we’re still unable to provide compelling evidence for how they can improve the viewing experience.

Why the urgency to fix this now? One word… a word that should strike fear in to the heart of every company in the industry.  Apple.  While the company didn’t unveil the now mythical Apple TV set at this week’s WWDC it is, according to any number of people in the know, only a matter of time.  Both former CEO Steve Jobs and Tim Cook have also alluded to the fact that it’s coming [it is stated in his biography that Jobs claimed to have, ‘cracked the code’ to TV].  Whether that’s an ‘insanely awesome’ and ‘revolutionary’ TV that will change the way people watched it or a new viewing experience – the industry had better be ready!

It’s unlikely that Apple will have a significantly better technical solution for multi-screen viewing, or offer any significant insights on how to integrate social networks [I think the knowledge and experience in the industry will always surpass anything that the Cupertino-based company can offer], but I do think that whatever they launch will be disruptive.  Very disruptive.  My instinct tells me that Jeremy Toeman has it pretty much spot on in his piece, ‘Decoding “I cracked it“].

But, when it comes to convincing consumers that a product is a ‘must have’… nobody can touch Apple.  You can be sure that when the Apple TV does launch the marketing will be another master-class in how to position a technology and convince consumers they need it.  If you’re in any doubt you need look no further than the iPad!  I think Jobs’ “I cracked it” will be the way Apple markets a new social, connected, multiscreen TV experience!

You have been warned.

Read ‘Why Apple’s ‘TV dream’ could turn into a nightmare’

Read ‘New iPad is Another Part of Apple’s Bid to Change the Face of TV’