Broadcasters have long dreamed of making TV interactive and social. From the days of “Winky-Dink & You,” which encouraged its young viewers to draw on the TV screen along with the show’s host (much to their parents’ dismay), to Time Warner’s Full Service Network in Orlando, Fla., to the short-lived flowering of second-screen apps, broadcasters and their technology partners have tried for decades to make watching TV a more engaging experience by giving viewers the means to interact directly with their programming, and with others watching at the same time.
Most of those efforts have failed to catch on as their backers had hoped, largely because broadcast platforms are inherently uni-directional. They’re not networked to support much beyond overlaying some pre-baked interactive elements. Even today, when second-screen use while watching TV is a mainstream behavior, most of that activity involves something other than the content on the TV screen, or happens on unrelated social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook that are opaque to the broadcaster until after the fact. Dedicated second-screen apps allow for greater dialog between broadcaster and viewer but don’t really capture the broader conversation around the content.
This month, however, we’ve seen the first steps toward what could be a new and more promising stage in the evolution of social TV. Last week, Twitter landed a deal with the NFL to live-stream a package of 10 “Thursday Night Football” games next season. Though Twitter was not the highest bidder for the streaming rights, the micro-blogging service is a natural online home for the NFL. Nearly 50 percent of the conversations on Twitter are sports related and the NFL is one of the most frequent topics of those conversations.
Now, however, some of that conversation will be happening on the same platform where the viewing is also happening, at least on Thursday nights.
“This is about transforming the fan experience with football,” Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said in a statement. “People watch NFL games with Twitter today. Now they’ll be able to watch right on Twitter Thursday nights.”
This week, Facebook announced at its F8 developers conference that it will open up APIs to third-party app developers and equipment makers that will allow them to integrate their apps and devices directly with Facebook Live, which has lately become a major priority for the social network. The move is intended to enable users to live-stream content from devices other than their mobile phones. But it also opens the Facebook Live streaming platform for professional broadcasters. Not for nothing will the APIs support a host of professional broadcasting features like camera switching, instant replay, graphics overlays and special effects.
Facebook is also making it possible for broadcasters to connect the Facebook Live API with the Facebook Graph API, enabling broadcasters to plug directly into the conversation around their content as it happens. As explained on the Facebook Media website, broadcasters can “gain access to your live video’s comments, reactions, and mentions. You can use this information to reflect viewer engagement in real time and create on-screen graphics that show live poll results, analyze comments, and enable comment moderation.”
Like the mountain coming to Mohammed, real-time broadcasting may finally become truly social only by migrating to networked, social platforms, rather than trying to graph social elements onto linear broadcasting platforms. The prototype here is actually Twitch.tv, which has built a huge user base on live-streaming broadcasts of video game play. From the start, Twitch recognized the importance of engaging in networked interactions on the same platform as the content in real time to create a new type of engaged viewer experience, so it built live chat into the core of its user experience.
Having proved the concept, Twitch is now looking to expand beyond video games by launching live arts and cooking channels.
It’s early days, yet. Broadcasters need to think hard about how much content they want to migrate to someone else’s platform, especially global platforms like Facebook, that may want but don’t really need their content. But we’re a long way from Winky-Dink.