What's Next for Social TV? (Spoiler Alert!)

In case you haven't noticed (and if you haven't, you probably don't LOL or TTYL), social media is the biggest thing to hit TV since the first Survivor contestants were voted off the island. On May 26 alone, there were more than 2.3 million TV-related tweets. That included over 600,000 for that night's NBA game, 230,000+ for The Bachelorette and nearly 58,000 for Arrested Development. And that's just the tip of the social TV iceberg.

With so many of us hopping on our mobile devices to chat on our second screens about what's happening on the first, social TV is the new glue connecting friends, family and the whole TV viewing community in an ongoing dialogue about the latest television goings-on. It's allowing people separated by miles to cozy up and watch favorite shows together virtually, complete with cheers, jeers or tears as the plotline in Game of Thrones takes a new turn or another contestant on The Voice bites the dust.

It's also directly shaping television viewership. Consider:

Facebook is driving new viewers to watch specific TV programs. Nearly half of the Internet users responding to a September 2012 Nielsen survey reported that they started watching a show because of opinions expressed on Facebook -- including 54 percent of those 18-34, 48 percent of those 35-49 and (most surprisingly) 30 percent of those 50-64.
Twitter volumes are one of the top three indicators of TV ratings, outstripped only by prior-year ratings and advertising spend, according to a Nielsen/SocialGuide study released earlier this year. For the coveted 18-34-year-old cohort, for example, an 8.5 percent increase in tweets for premiere episodes and a 4.2 percent increase for midseason episodes corresponds to a 1 percent gain in ratings.
Broadcasters are actively turning to social TV to attract new viewers as well as engage existing fans. In its second season, ABC's Scandal launched a social TV strategy that included aggressive hashtagging focused on sparking tweets about specific episodes and story plots (eg #WhoShotFitz) as well as encouraging live interaction with the cast during shows (#AskScandal). The upshot: a staggering 571,353 tweets in the season finale -- and a second-season surge in viewership from 6.7 million to 9.1 million.

Clearly, social TV is a train that's picking up speed faster than you can text CUL8R. The question is: where is it headed?

One key development that's almost ready for prime time is new single-screen technology that merges the second screen with the first. The change will fundamentally alter the features and benefits of the television/social media engagement experience -- not only for viewers but also (crucially) for broadcasters, content providers and advertisers.

Goodbye, Second Screen

Just as cameras have been built into cellphones and GPS units into car dashboards, social interaction will soon be built into the same screen where content is viewed -- whether on a smart TV, ultrabook, tablet, smartphone, game console screen or the next device du jour.

In this single-screen world, users will be able to form 'viewing circles' where friends and family anywhere in the country can get together to watch their favorite TV programs in real time. Using picture-in-picture social and search components embedded in whatever viewing screen each person is using at the moment, everyone in the circle will be able to chat by video, voice and/or text (including seeing all participants in separate windows via webcam); chat with others using social networks such as Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn; and conduct online searches for information related to the program or commercial they're watching -- all without switching devices.

For viewers like you and me, this single screen will feel more comfortable and natural. There will be no more need to look away from the football game or reality show we're watching to commiserate on our second screen about a referee's call or a contestant's performance with BFFs scattered across the country. We will be able to watch and socialize at the same time with no risk of missing a critical play or mid-episode meltdown.

And in good news for the frequently-mobile crowd (and who isn't?), we'll no longer be tied to our living room TV to get the high-speed Internet access needed for live HD-quality content streaming. With the lower bandwidth requirements of today's emerging single-screen technology, live television as well as video on demand can be delivered to mobile devices at the local coffee shop, airport or any other location with Internet connectivity -- complete with social media and search activities integrated into the screen or available with a swipe.

This will not only create the first true 'TV everywhere' capability, but also produce a never-before-possible 'social TV everywhere' experience that marries social media and television programming outside the home without hauling around two separate devices.

For broadcasters, the single screen will make it possible to seamlessly blend social with programming and reap the benefits. In the case of cable providers without their own social apps, for example, there won't be a need to form partnerships with second-screen apps that dig into their own revenues while simultaneously diverting viewers' attention from their own programming and advertising.

For content creators, the single-platform approach will keep viewers' eyes on the programming even while they tweet, text, chat or search, eliminating the distractions involved in switching devices. It will also provide new opportunities for live viewer engagement similar to listeners calling into radio talk shows as well as in new forms that will evolve over time.

And for advertisers, benefits will range from the ability to consolidate advertising dollars previously split between the first and second screens to rich user analytics that will enable more targeted advertising, peer-to-peer promotions, gamification and e-commerce.

For all these reasons, combining chat, social networking and search on the same screen that's streaming your content is a logical next stop on the Second-Screen Express. In a few years, checking out the cast in a favorite show and chatting with your best buds as well as your social networks from your viewing screen will seem as natural -- and indispensable -- as texting, tweeting and posting pix of last weekend's party on Pinterest. You'll wonder how you ever lived without it.