Before the dawn of the so-called social-TV phenomenon -- the intersection between social media and TV -- things were so much more complicated. Pre-Twitter (which launched in 2006) and pre-Facebook (born in 2004), it was totally a chore to find out what people thought about TV.
Sure, you could check assorted dedicated blogs and websites (like Dawson's Wrap, the born-in-1998 "Dawson's Creek" fansite that was a precursor to Television Without Pity), but you'd only get rather rarefied opinions from a subset of TV nerds. If you wanted to get the opinions of average TV viewers, you had to go out there and ask them.
Little known fact, but pollsters used to be stationed in offices around the country to surreptitiously capture viewer opinions. If you're old enough to have had a white-collar job in the '80s and '90s, you may remember a guy or gal who was always standing around the water cooler saying stuff like "Man, when Mr. Roper did that double-take last night on "'Three's Company' as Jack walked into the room in a dress, was that hilarious or what?!" Chances are this person wasn't actually an employee of your company, but a plainclothes interviewer hired by one of the many research companies (office building security was a lot more lax back then) commissioned by networks during the height of the so-called water-cooler TV era.
Big money was spent laboriously capturing viewer opinions about TV back in the water-cooler TV days because, well, what could be more important than tracking random viewer mutterings about TV shows at scale?
OK, fine; that didn't really happen. Networks -- and agencies and brands -- actually used to content themselves mostly with little things like, you know, Nielsen ratings. How could you tell if people were enjoying a show? They watched it.
Even in 2013, that's still (duh) the main thing that matters. Sure, they may be talking about it, but are they watching it?
I've been thinking a lot about how we all coped before social TV, because I keep getting asked about "the future of social TV," especially given the ongoing consolidation in the industry (e.g., Nielsen's purchase of SocialGuide, Viggle buying GetGlue). I get asked because I've done a lot of coverage and analysis of social TV for Ad Age over the years, dating back to before the phenomenon even had a name.
In those early days, working with Ad Age's editorial partner Trendrr, the social-media monitoring firm, it was pretty amazing watching thousands, and then tens of thousands, and then millions of social-media comments rack up around individual shows. For TV people (showrunners and network marketing types, especially), I know it was thrilling. For me, as a media columnist, it was fascinating having a front-row seat as the whole second-screen phenomenon was birthed in real time and gained critical mass.
And then ... it got boring. New social-TV records continue to get set -- the phenomenon seems far from peaking -- but they're rarely surprising anymore.
Then, last December, after Nielsen bought SocialGuide, Nielsen and Twitter announced they were working on creating something called the Nielsen Twitter TV Rating -- "a syndicated-standard metric around the reach of the TV conversation on Twitter" -- in time for the fall 2013 season. I'm keeping an open mind, but a part of me felt that that was a jump-the-shark-moment for social TV. As I've written before, when it comes to social-media response, absolute numbers -- especially when used to compare disparate shows -- are largely meaningless. There are just way too many variables to correct for between viewer demographics and show genres (e.g., a low-rated CW drama can explode on Twitter thanks to tweet-happy teen girls, dwarfing the social-media response to, say, a top-rated police procedural over on older-skewing CBS).
So, yeah, what of the future of social TV? For starters, Trendrr is doing some interesting things with its curation tools -- part of its "studio services" offerings -- which are all about drawing insights for specific networks and showrunners from the social-media stream surrounding individual shows (i.e., the point is to listen to your audience). Bluefin Labs, another company that's been sharing its data with Ad Age, is continuing to build out its sophisticated system for evaluating the efficacy and social reach of individual commercials.
But for my money, where it gets really interesting is when networks stop thinking about how to goose the social-media numbers surrounding the broadcast window and instead think of their shows as cross-platform (including social-media) brands that fans want to be able to engage with anytime they want. That's the approach taken at, for example, USA Network, under digital chief Jesse Redniss. His team has pioneered in the creation of digital extensions of shows -- everything from tablet comic books to elaborate, engrossing online games -- that delight viewers (and sponsors) 24/7.
In other words, social TV ends up doing what social media in general has done: It gets absorbed into daily life. It stops being this separate thing, this curiosity, this "phenomenon" that we poke and prod and obsess over. Social TV becomes ... TV.
Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.