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 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.
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.
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 and Facebook. 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.