March 22, 2016

Yin and Yang

Rumors this week from the New York Post that Facebook and Twitter are contemplating bringing live TV programming to their platforms. The odds of this happening in the short run seem fairly slim. Nevertheless, the more interesting questions (with respect to the future of TV) are why they would even be talking about it, and whether it makes sense for either side in the negotiations.

Two points.

1. Social Networks Need Mass Media (i.e.,TV)
When social networks first emerged more than a decade ago, the medium seemed like the antithesis of mass media. On Facebook, users posted photos and comments on their own profiles, and on those of their friends. Twitter seemed even more inane, with more than a few folks avoiding the service entirely on the grounds that they weren’t that interested in getting play-by-play commentary (“I’m at the DMV. Can’t believe how long this line is”) on the ordinary lives of ordinary people. The overall direction in both cases, however, was bottoms-up entertainment in which mainstream consumers could spend time interacting, amusing, and generally entertaining each other with user-generated content.

Or not.

As these services have grown to massive size, and users have habituated to having hundreds or thousands of on-line ‘friends’, behavior on social networks has changed.

Twitter has evolved faster in this regard (and not always to its own benefit). Twitter’s core idea of asymmetric following (I follow you does not mean you follow me) tends inexorably towards a one-to-many medium. Celebrities quickly discovered that Twitter provided a unique (and free) amplifier for fame (just ask Lady Gaga and Donald Trump). The fact that roughly 40% of people on Twitter never tweet just exacerbates this tendency. The result in Twitter’s case is a platform increasingly dedicated to the ‘hot take’ on popular current events. As TDG first pointed out three years ago in our first report on Social TV, this translates to responding to things that users have seen on television. News, sports, political debates, award shows, live musicals – it turns out Twitter needs a steady flow of this stuff to thrive (and maybe even just to survive).

Facebook seems more resilient in this regard, and does well globally across a huge variety of cultures and social contexts. Networks of friends and family are about as universal as it gets. Facebook’s challenge as a public company, however, is how it can sustain and grow usage. As a user, there is a limit to how much time I am willing to spend commenting on my friends’ cute kids and dogs. Interacting around popular culture extends these limits, which is why Facebook is now widely rumored to be bidding on the right to stream Thursday night NFL games next season. Expect more such partnerships in the future. Conversations are the fuel that makes social networks run, and people constantly need new things to talk about.

2. TV Needs Engagement and Relevance
Television is all about a relationship between the content provider and the audience. This is true, regardless of whether or not the content is supported by advertising. Netflix and HBO pay just as much attention to growing and satisfying their audiences as CBS or a local broadcaster does. Once upon a time this relationship was defined almost exclusively via ratings (i.e., number of viewers). While the raw number of viewers remains hugely important, engagement has become the real essence of the content provider-viewer relationship. And one key aspect of engagement is the degree to which viewers are willing to share, comment on, interact with, or otherwise react to videos that they consume. The extent of this interaction, in turn, has supplanted viewership as the key measure of television’s social relevance. James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke segments have become the most widely shared late night video clip in history. Engagement with this content is orders of magnitude stronger than any other aspect of the show, and totally disproportionate to the ratings of The Late Late Show. CBS obviously agrees and is running a prime time TV special on March 29 to cash in on the hype. At its core, pop culture is a feedback loop, and television today could not be culturally relevant without the feedback and cultural conversation that social networks provide.

The challenge to date, of course, has been that television has no way to monetize social networks. To the extent legacy TV providers can sell nonexclusive live streaming rights to particular events or shows to Facebook and Twitter, they may be able to kill three birds with one stone. First, programmers (finally) would receive a direct financial return from social networks in connection the TV-related chatter that they enable. Second, shows that do this would very likely see increases in total viewing audience, as the Facebook version reaches incremental users (young people) who no longer watch legacy TV. Third, shows that stream directly on Facebook or Twitter get a built-in social TV audience that is more likely to interact and engage than a traditional audience. The result, almost by necessity, is likely to be TV programming that is highly current and relevant.

One of the main themes my work has stressed over the past several years is that culture, technology, and business do not exist in separate vacuums. Each is connected to the others in complex, and often surprising ways. In this case, however, it’s becoming pretty clear. Social networks and television need each other, and will become even more closely linked in years to come.

Stick with TDG and stay ahead of the curve.

Joel Espelien is a Senior Advisor for TDG and serves as an advisor and Board Member to the video ecosystem and technology companies. He lives near Seattle, WA.

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