The Future of Social TV: It’s Not About the Check-In

Bazaar Labs CEO Somrat Niyogi isn’t holding back these days. “Check-ins isn’t it,” he told me bluntly during a phone conversation about the future of social TV experiences last week. That’s surprising, because Bazaar’s Miso service offers exactly that: Mobile phone applications that tell your friends which TV shows you’re watching by “checking in” to these shows in much the same way you’d share your location with a check-in on Foursquare.

“It’s definitely still very much a check-in service,” admitted Niyogi, but he told me that the San Francisco-based startup is getting ready to move on to bigger and better things. “It’s just a starting point,” he said — a feature that can help to get a conversation going, but not be the focus of a conversation. People don’t just want to share which show they watch, Niyogi said, they want to share specific information about a specific episode.

Bazaar Labs isn’t the only company trying to figure out how to make TV more social. The demand for this is huge: Twitter regularly sees spikes in participation when popular shows or live events air on TV. A number of startups have tried to leverage this by offering media-specific check-in tools that mimic Foursquare, even down to the badges awarded to users.

The Academy Awards, for example, recently teamed up with Miso competitor Getglue to offer its users special Oscars badges. And TV Guide just this week unveiled check-ins for its new sports section. Still, Niyogi remains skeptical about the future of check-ins, badges and other virtual rewards. “We don’t think badges and stickers are in the long run he reason that people come back,” he told me.

He is not the only one who has doubts about the current check-in experience. A number of companies have started to automate and enhance the process through audio fingerprinting, which allows mobile devices to recognize what you’re watching simply by listening to a show’s audio track.

The advantage of this approach is that a service not only knows what show you’re watching, but actually how far into the episode you currently are, making it possible to display context-relevant information. ABC (s DIS) is currently experimenting with an iPad app that utilizes this technology to deliver related information and ads while users watch select Grey’s Anatomy episodes.

Bazaar recently ran a similar test with an Android app that connected to Boxee to deliver context-relevant information about a handful of TV show episodes. The results? Not so good, according to Niyogi’s honest assessment: “People found it somewhat annoying,” he told me. Participants in the test told the company that they’d prefer to have control over the information they receive. “It’s actually very difficult to push the right information at the right time” to viewers, Niyogi explained.

So how do you make TV more social? By building the better water cooler and enabling people to have conversations about content. That’s a domain currently owned by Twitter. However, the micro-blogging service and its constant stream of updates service works best for live events, and not so much for on-demand viewing on Netflix. (s NFLX) “We don’t think Twitter is good at that,” said Niyogi. Miso wants to take a first step towards becoming more conversational with the next version of its iOS app, which is scheduled to come out in a few weeks.

Check out this excellent NewTeeVee Live talk about Twitter as the new global water cooler from Twitter’s Robin Sloan: