Social TV Is Dead; Long Live Social TV

Remember the Gold Rush Years of Social TV? Here's Why They Ended

By Published on .

Reprints Reprints

Throughout upfronts/NewFronts season, I've been asked over and over, "So what's going on with 'social TV'?" Good question, and one that's understandably directed at me, because for a long time I was the "social-TV guy," given that I started writing about the phenomenon before it even had a name and helped Ad Age organize two social-TV conferences during the 2012 go-go days.

Last year was one of consolidation, with the two most important players in the social-TV-metrics space, Trendrr and Bluefin Labs, both getting acquired by Twitter. And this year? That's a little more complicated. Some thoughts:

Credit: Kelsey Dake for Ad Age

The early goldrush days are over
Twitter along with (to a lesser extent) Facebook continue to bigfoot the social-TV space, and it's been hard for indies with stand-alone apps to gain traction. So consolidation, refinancing and rebranding continues. In January, i.TV folded its then-recent acquisition, GetGlue, into a new app called TVtag. Viggle, another check-in app that made a big splash in early 2012 thanks to high-profile backing from Robert F.X. Sillerman, just had a rocky IPO (shifting from Pink Sheet trading to the Nasdaq). It was delayed, then Viggle shrunk the size of the deal, then the stock (VGGL) sunk from the $8 opening price to $5-ish, where it is as of this writing.

Even Zeebox, a BSkyB-backed British social-TV app that scored partnerships with Comcast, NBCU, Viacom and HBO when it came to the U.S. in late 2012, has had enough trouble gaining traction that it decided to rebrand as Beamly just last month.

Social TV needs new champions
The media loves reporting about startups. The current game of musical chairs in the social-TV space is much less fun to write about, and when Trendrr and Bluefin Labs disappeared last year (when Twitter acquired them, it absorbed their IP and they stopped functioning as stand-alone companies), the two leading champions of social TV went largely silent.

The result is a sort of conversational vacuum in the industry. Which means that when someone like Alan Wurtzel, NBCU's head of research, does an interview with the Financial Times and declares that social TV is "not a game-changer yet" in terms of influencing TV tune-in and "I am saying the emperor wears no clothes" -- as he did in late April -- it gets a lot of attention.

His conclusions were based on analysis of viewing habits surrounding the Sochi Winter Olympics -- an outlier of a broadcast event if there ever was one.

Yes, it's been hard for anyone to definitively demonstrate a clear link between increased social chatter and increased ratings. But basic realities about human behavior still apply to new media and new platforms. What drives viewership? As has been the case since the dawn of TV, network promos and other advertising, media coverage, returning viewers and "water-cooler conversations" among friends, family and coworkers.

For something as massive and media-culturally omnipresent as the Olympics, teasing out the value of, say, a Twitter conversation about a particular event is obviously hard to do. But it defies logic to suggest that social media can't move the needle in a meaningful way.

It's worth noting here that Twitter (belatedly) fired back at social-TV doubters last week by releasing a study, "Discovering the Value of Earned Audiences: How Twitter Expressions Activate Consumers," in partnership with Fox, the Advertising Research Foundation and db5. Take that, Mr. Wurtzel!

Social TV is a lot broader than we realize
In the early days of social TV, I published a ton of articles based on data from Ad Age's then–editorial partner Trendrr. At first they were rudimentary sparkline charts that showed how many thousands (and then tens of thousands, then hundreds of thousands) of people were saying things on Twitter and Facebook in connection with individual shows during broadcast. Thanks to charts like that, I suppose people got used to thinking of social TV as something discrete and linear and confined to a rather narrow window of time.

But as Ad Age San Francisco Bureau Chief Cotton Delo reported in late April, social TV may be more diffuse and far-reaching than we realize. Case in point: Tumblr, she wrote, just "commissioned a study by a U.K.-based social-data-intelligence company called Pulsar that says the volume of social-TV activity on Tumblr is actually much greater than on Twitter. That is, when looking at it through an 11-day window that spans from five days before the show airs to five days after."

Given what I see on Tumblr, I buy that.

Heck, I bet a huge chunk of WhatsApp conversations are about what people are watching on TV. Because that's what humans do circa 2014: They use new media and new platforms to talk about all kinds of media -- including old media, like TV.

It's just incumbent upon Tumblr and Twitter and Facebook and Beamly and TVtag and Viggle and everyone else in the social-TV space to refocus the conversation among networks and brands beyond a strict obsession with cause and effect -- as in social messaging immediately prompting tune-in. (Pre-internet, nobody ever put that kind of pressure on the literal water cooler.)

The emperor is wearing clothes -- it's just that his tailors need a new marketing campaign.

Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.