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Let’s face it: social TV is dead

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Okay, video startups, it’s time to get real: That social TV thing you’ve been trying for the last couple years? It’s not working.

The evidence is all around us: A few days ago, Yahoo (s YUHOO) announced that it was shutting down Intonow, the social TV service it had acquired three years ago. The announcement came on the heels of i.TV discontinuing the GetGlue service and brand which it acquired late last year in favor of its new tvtag app.

And just today, social TV company Viggle bought Dijit, better known for its NextGuide app. Dijit of course had acquired social TV pioneer Miso a year ago, just around the time when Viggle tried — and failed — to buy GetGlue.

Dizzy yet? I haven’t even mentioned Matcha, Tunerfish, Screentribe, Twelevision, Otherscreen, BeeTV, Numote or Philo yet — all startups that tried and failed to revolutionize TV by making it social. Some got acquired and eventually sidelined, others just fizzled and ran out of cash. Part of this is simply how the startup world works — for every success, there are a bunch of failures.

But there’s more to it: from the very beginning, standalone social TV apps were a solution in search of a problem.

Enough with with the stickers already

Early on, developers of social TV apps had what at the time seemed like a good idea: People were already using their phones, laptops and tablets in front of their TVs — so why not serve up ads on those devices that are related to the content shown on the TV screen? Building a kind of Adsense for TV seemed like a great way to make lots of money.

The only problem was that TV viewers want fewer ads, not more. That’s why app developers tried all kinds of other stuff to get people to use their apps. They borrowed the idea of check-ins from Foursquare — except, there’s not really that much value in telling the entire world what you’re watching right now. So they took the worst parts of Foursquare’s gamification and tried to apply them to TV viewing as well. Because what Law and Order really needs is stickers.

getglue stickers

App makers quickly realized that manual check-ins were just too complicated — and came up with a crazy hack to automate the whole procedure by having your iPad listen to the audio track of your TV and then automatically identify what’s on TV. It’s like Shazam — only it tells you something you already knew. Great, right?

Another bad idea was synchronized second-screen content. Some apps started to bombard viewers with small nuggets of information, quiz questions, polls and more that were meant to enhance the TV experience. TV networks were initially excited about the prospects of this as well, and tried to own the experience by building dedicated second-screen apps for individual shows. But it became quickly clear that it’s hard to scale this model, and that most of the time, this experience is more of a distraction than anything else.

The myth of discovery

Another often-repeated myth of social TV is discovery. App makers believed that most viewers have no idea what they want to watch when they sit down in front of the TV. The solution, they argued, were viewing recommendations powered by the wisdom of the crowd, or by your buddies on Facebook. The problem with that is that most of my Facebook friends have terrible taste, or simply watch the same stuff I already watch or know about. (Except for those few friends who are reading this story, of course. Your taste in TV is impeccable.)

Content recommendations based on your social graph have already failed in the music space, and TV is no different: You just don’t want to know about the poor choices old high-school friends made on their living room couch. That’s not to say that helping people find sources for their favorite content isn’t a useful feature in a world with dozens of streaming services, and even reminders can be a good thing. But that’s not social TV. It’s a simple utility, and there’s no need to add on a whole bunch of unnecessary bells and whistles just to keep people glued to an app.

Binge watching takes the urgency out of discovery.
Binge watching takes the urgency out of discovery.

Here’s another important point social TV failed to anticipate: In the age of binge-watching and serialized storytelling, discovery matters less and less. Sure, I may want to find a new show every now and then — but the commitment of time spent per show is so high that I don’t need to look for new content for weeks once I’ve settled on a few favorites.

Some may argue that most Americans simply don’t binge-watch. That may be true, but the “mainstream America doesn’t do that” argument goes both ways: Most Americans also happily use their cable company’s TV guide, and see no reason to trade it in for a fancy social TV iPad app.

The elephant in the room: Twitter and Facebook

The biggest fallacy of social TV, however, was that it was trying to reinvent the wheel. People were already social while watching TV, and they had found their perfect outlets in Twitter (s TWTR) and Facebook. (S FB) Social TV app makers tend to argue that the experience on Twitter is too ephemeral, that people talk about too many other things on these services and that it is too hard to keep track of the chatter about a certain show.

My response to this is: Why would you think that’s a problem, and not a feature? When we want to immerse themselves in a TV show, we are not going to mess with other screens. And when we find the time to also tweet or check Facebook, then we do that with the expectation that people are going to talk about all kinds of things, and that’s just fine and actually offers an important backchannel to let us know about the rest of the world. Because, let’s face it: Wouldn’t you much rather look at your friend’s baby pictures than some gimmicky social TV quizz during a show’s ad break?

Twitter and Facebook of course know how important those five hours we statistically spend in front of our TV every day are to them, and the companies both continue to invest in their own TV experience. No wonder TV networks team up with Twitter these days, as opposed to building their own social TV apps.

Where we go from here?

Does this mean that there’s no room for mobile TV app developers next to Twitter and Facebook? Of course not. But instead of trying to repeat old mistakes and fine-tune concepts that haven’t been working for years, it’s time to move on and try something new.

For example, few have tried to build social experiences around TV that involve actual people who watch TV together in the same room. With multiscreen technologies like DIAL and Google Cast becoming mainstream, there is a possibility for all kinds of apps that turn TV viewing into real-time games, spontaneous karaoke parties and collaborative streaming playlists.

There’s also a lot of potential in TV metadata, and the kinds of experiences it could unlock — something that Samsung has started to experiment with, but that could easily be taken much further. And finally, the combination of wearables, cloud-based TV apps and mobile services could lead to a whole new range of personalized TV experiences (for inspiration, watch this demo video of a personalized workout program using Google Glass and Chromecast).

Just please, stop with the stickers and the check-ins already.

24 Responses to “Let’s face it: social TV is dead”

  1. Good article and coincides with some thoughts we’ve had on the Social TV Ireland group on LinkedIn:

    We’ve been working to deliver TV-synchronized online advertising on behalf of television advertisers. But Facebook’s ad platform has some built-in limitations to support short bursts of broad reach campaigns.

    First and foremost, there is some type of delay between turning a campaign on and seeing ad delivery, irrelevant of CPM bid, daily budget or audience targeting. You can turn on a campaign and turn it off again a few minutes later and see zero ad delivery. That’s a fundamental problem for second screen advertising.

    Secondly, the Facebook Ads platform has spend throttling built in and it can’t be disabled to attain super-high delivery over short time-frames, such as the duration of a television advertisement.

    Facebook will argue that FBX (the Facebook real-time bidding ad exchange) can deliver ad inventory with zero latency. However, the reach is stymied by the built-in retargeting, such that advertisers can only bid on ad impressions from users that have already visited the advertiser’s website/app and been cookied. This does not fit with the “broad”-cast nature of mass-market television advertising.

    Facebook may be at the center of the social TV conversation, but their platform seems to be crippled for making money out of it.

  2. The only surprise is that it surprises anyone. VC’s/Funds/Merchant Banks are like lemmings, pouring over the cliff chasing the leader, in this event, Facebook & Twitter. And each one that goes down, does so accompanying copious amounts of investor $s.

    Meanwhile, in our attempt to raise finance for an innovative approach to an existing world wide market, we constantly run in to the ‘you’re not in our space’, or ‘you’re not generating revenues yet’, comments from people losing their investor’s money by the bucket load in the assumption that someday ‘eyeballs’ will turn to profit.

    If it’s not too unkind to ask, if your fund is under water or returning less than the S&P, what exactly, is your expertise?

  3. Jonathan Omar Bowman

    There is a market. Social TV does exist. Engagement around TV is real. Excitement around TV is very real. Second screen doesn’t exist. Second screen is a fallacy. The buzz and engagement with TV will almost never occur, at levels that are measurable, during the show. The next big issue is community. People guard their personas with a vengeance on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter and they work hard to deliver a picture of who they are catered to a very specific audience. They know that those communities are not about TV and they do not engage there about TV because they feel that’s not the place for that. I feel finding the community and giving it a place to live while throwing in a bit of anonymity or detaching the users from the major communities (Facebook and Twitter) will help spark this fire. You also need to provide some sort of Gamification. Not badges, give me a perk or reward that is worth my time. Like a retweet from Woody Harrelson. Lastly there needs to be a true connection to how excited I am about the show. Have the stars hop in and comment once in a while. Connect to me by explaining why a scene was shot a certain way or clues as to what will happen with their character in the next season.

    The simple fact that there’s an article about this signifies that there is indeed something there, just not second screening or social TV. What’s there is a massive goldmine that will take many years to figure out how to tap into. If we can make an entire industry out of teen-age heart throbs then we can make a pre/post community that thrives on discussing and engaging with TV.

    We want to talk about TV, we just don’t want to talk about it with friends.

    • I couldn’t disagree more. There is indeed a 2nd screen, and it’s the TV. The small screens are the primary devices. There is also social TV, but the real-time apps for it are Twitter and Txt messaging. Facebook to a lesser/non-real-time degree.

  4. Stephen Beck

    Great read. It seems like with all the gimmicky ideas for social TV products/services, no one’s really figured out the most important part: providing users with a value exchange that makes engagement worth their while. I can’t think of many adults that don’t work in some area of the digital ecosystem that are motivated by badges and stickers.

  5. Bill Via

    I agree with everyone that’s putting another over-hyped, solution-in-search-a-of-problem in the rearview mirror, but wanted to throw out a related thought on the topic of media consumption – when discussing usage by younger generations, isn’t the TV the second screen? Maybe we have it backwards.

  6. Tom McDonnell

    Interaction which is baked into the core of a TV show is, and always has been, extremely popular. Think about it, at the simple end where would TV be without talent shows and voting? Endemol is the world’s biggest TV producer and its most successful European TV format is Money Drop, a show with play-along built into the format.

    The mistake these consumer apps like GetGlue and Zeebox made/are making is thinking *they* could bring something to the TV experience that’s more interesting than the TV. True fans want deeper involvement, not distraction from someone who’s nothing to do with the show.

    There’s a big future for interaction with TV, but it will be led by producers and broadcasters, and tools that make it more efficient for them to deliver those experiences to fans.

    The term “second screen” and “social tv” will both die in 2014, but fans will always want more of what they’re passionate about.

  7. The fundamental mistake by these companies is the assumption that the small screen is the 2nd screen, when in actual fact it is the primary screen and the TV is the 2nd screen. This article seems to reinforce that.

    • Bill Via

      Agreed. Didn’t see this before posting the same point below. I think that fundamental shift in perspective would make a world of difference when developing apps – or not if you hold the view that there’s no real need beyond what already exists – but a lot of this was driven by traditional media companies who can’t imagine that their core business is not the center of the universe.

    • Yael Givon

      Totally agree, Social TV apps assume that social is here to reinforce what’s on TV, so they created experiences that try to regulate how and what people socialize about in the screens that actually matter to them most.
      Ideally, you’ll be on your social feeds on mobile, ipad or laptop and be able to beam full channels to your TV,the social being the initiator rather than the cherry on top.
      Or at least that’s what we’re doing at :)

  8. Back in India, We at BrizzTV have a very different take on “socialTV”. We have launched this platform called “Twitter on TV” with Airtel DTH ( 10m subscribers) in India that enables people to get hold of what’s hapenning on Twitter related to the show they are watching directly ON their TV as opposed to on a mobile/pad – works really well for news ( we are mixing main stream news with its parody on Twitter) & sports( expert & ex-player tweets during the match) – Users don’t have to login to Twitter on their TV to get these feeds – a premium experience of enjoying the cocktail of premium TV shows + premium tweets ( no junk, no hashtag based pulling) around it. Would love to pick ur brain on this model.
    More at

  9. Agreed, social TV was a solution to a problem that didn’t exist. TV is not broken, it doesn’t need to be fixed, couch-potatoing is the ultimate brainless entertainment and TV is perfect for background noise. There is, however, the question of how will traditional TV adapt to younger generations and the multitasking that is now prevalent while watching programs. the one interesting aspect of second screens solutions (not the social connection stuff, obviously) is the possibility to bring content from the Internet, related to what you’re watching. particularly useful for sports program (check out players stats, teams etc while game is on) and news (remind me, where is Bhutan? bring up a map during a CNN segment about Bhutan). but annoying to take your eyes off the TV screen to check the info on your phone or ipad. What if someone overlayed that “second screen” info onto the TV screen without interrupting the broadcast? Dish is starting to do that – the interface needs some work. Then there is this little startup (full disclosure, I am a cofounder) which has developed a prototype of a TV UI doing just that. Stay tuned. TV watching could better, but Social TV was just not the right path.

    • Borys Musielak

      I think Opera is on the right track with providing “second screen experience” on the first screen (see the Sony TVs they’re showcasing the tech). Additional info on sport games currently watching, recommendations of content to watch next, etc. It’s like a Set Top Box software but done right.

  10. Forrest Maready

    I enjoyed reading this article- wish it were twice as long. A little insight goes a long way in our flavor of the month driven app development. I always felt the second screen experience was more about multitasking than immersion (other than an occasional IMDB lookup or Kazaa tag).

    On a related note, I just saw that Digitalsmiths was acquired by Tivo today for $135 million. They’re a decidedly content discovery platform- not so much social, but still an interesting purchase for Tivo.

    • Borys Musielak

      DigitalSmiths and others in the TV discovery space (including my company) are doing just great. It’s just not social TV. It’s adding value to the current TV experience by integrating with set top box solutions like TiVo or Roku in a Netflix way–very personalized, not very social. That’s what adds value both for the consumers (easier access to content they really like to watch) and providers (better conversions, more viewership). I’m glad people in SV are finally starting to understand that, took them a few years :)