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Society and TV, back to square one with Social TV

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Nothing stays new in the nascent space of TV and online convergence. So aren’t you a bit surprised that “Social TV” is still a cool buzzword despite having been around for a few years already? Let me suggest in five steps why the term isn’t stale already by delving a bit deeper into the relationship between TV and Society. The strength and depth of that bond is one possible explanation of the buzzword’s longevity.


Humanity has always used media for interaction

From the dawn of mankind until the XVIth century

Tribes or clans gathered in caves around a fire in the stone ages. We know that they had paintings on the walls, so there has been media to share and react to in a group about just about as far back as we go as a human race. Our more recent western memory contains things like evening reunions around a fire in a village hall. The absence of any formal media exchange outside of the close nit communities created a strong sense of belonging.

The emergence of Mass media

From Guttenberg until TV

The printing press was the first mass media and brought around radical changes in society. It enabled both knowledge with education and propaganda with mass control. Mass media, even before TV had an “atomisation” effect on society as individuals could identify with groups outside of their local community. From a societal perspective mass media kept its Jekyll and Hyde aspect with the arrival of motion pictures and radio. The dark side is illustrated with Hitler’s rise to power relying on the control of media. The “Hypodermic” theory of media states that you an only “inject” an ideology into the masses if individual are “atomised” enough to be open to such influence.

Village hall evening reunion RIP

At last something to talk about at the coffee machine

From the 60s until the 90s

I remember in the 70’s hearing how TV had disrupted evening gatherings in small communities and what a bad influence it was therefore having on social cohesion. The child I was understood that societies were going to breakup because we were spending less & less time communing together.

I kind of got the point as a kid, but always had a niggling feeling that it was just the older generation scared of change. Getting together with friends to talk about the movie we’d all seen the night before seemed to have a much greater cohesive effect than any boring village gathering I imagined. In offices there were decades of coffee machine chatter about what aired the previous night – one decade alone for Dallas and in the nineties millions discussed who had killed Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks.

The great fragmentation

From the 90s until now

The first cable networks with their ever-growing channel line-ups only lessened this effect gradually. It was just the audiences in developed markets that started to fragment, but they still fell into pretty huge clusters.


Until the 90s, the market-leading channel in many countries (except the US) used to have over 50% viewership. It had been that way for decades. Then in one short decade they mostly went from the ~40% mark to something more like 20%. Although the cake has gotten much bigger, their share is so much smaller so that there is no clear market leader in many markets.

The fragmentation process only really speeded up and created small fragments when new technologies like IP enabled distribution to smaller audiences from a business and technology perspective.

Back the future in a virtual village hall or around a cave painting

From now onwards

I used to be a Social TV sceptic until the power of the second screen dawned on me during Six Degrees 2010 Social Media show where I first met industry luminaries like Tom McDonnell & Richard Kastelein. Since then, dozens of start-ups have hit the news and kept the buzz going. Yes, indeed there must be hundreds where the dozens come from. Zeebox is a recent example from the UK. It is based on companion screen Social media and currently enjoying the peak of its hype phase. After Channel 4, then Sky signed deals with Zeebox, it looks like there is something behind the hype already.


So we’re back to square one, with people getting together in the virtual village hall out in a rural community to share an experience and talk about it. Off the cuff, Social TV has as many similarities with pre-TV society as it does differences.

Similarities include: both are about sharing a media experience, then they both include discussion, exchange and even fighting about that experience. Both Social TV and village reunions are also where decisions are made on what the next show or story will be i.e. recommendation and finally they both require a common set of cultural values to function, i.e. a common language.


The new business models and monetization opportunities may be all-important for our industry, but they have no social impact and so don’t count as a difference.

The real societal differences stem from the virtual aspect of Social TV. Village halls are brick and mortar just as a cave is rock in a specific location. Social TV is about virtual communities. Social TV brings scalability. Scalability down as you can find at least one person somewhere to share your ultra-niche content experience with as well as scalability up where the virtual cave can expand to accommodate every Manchester fan in the world.


There is still a vestige of the old world in IP geo-blocking that limits the access to some services to people from certain countries, but its only a mater of time before geographic limitations vanish altogether.