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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.

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Once the dust of Social TV hype settles, content recommendation will be changed forever.

This is a discussion I had recently with my friend Nicolas Bry on how social media impacting the content recommendation space.

  1. Hi Ben, you’re a specialist in the field of Content Discovery, and you're currently updating a “recommendation engine” study, tell us more about it: where does the need for recommendation come from?

Together with my colleague Sebastian Becker from thebrainbehind and David Gillies, we are putting together an updated guide for operators, to speed up their RFI/RFP processes. It’s all hush hush until it comes out, but anyone interested can always keep an eye here.

The traditional reason that we have been grappling with for years is the content explosion, but a newer challenge is brought by companion screens, multiscreen or the TV-Anywhere user experience, which is linked to the emerging social TV phenomenon that you are working on. As always, challenge also means opportunity.

But back to the Content Explosion first. It has been with us for well over a decade, at least since the “long tail” became a challenge and an incredible opportunity. It’s no longer newsworthy to note that almost all of iTunes’s millions of items have been sold at least once, or that Amazon’s critical mass of both catalogue and users enable it, unlike brick & mortar shops, to make a significant proportion of revenue from back-catalogue. But when you now look at Netflix’s catalogue on a TV in the US, or for example the Orange VoD store in France, you can only state the obvious: there’s just so much to choose from that the traditional TV navigation paradigms don’t deliver a satisfying user experience anymore (if they ever did). And if you could fix the issue within your walled garden, the OTT offerings will just shift the goal posts again.

For many user situations the goal may simply be to filter out enough of the stuff viewers don’t want, leaving them with a simpler choice.

The biggest remaining challenge for the traditional approach to recommendation is in knowing who is actually in front of the TV. User logon systems just don’t work in a sitting room TV environment. This is where the companion screen may come and save the day for recommendation vendors.

The recommendation challenge changed along with TV usage. Finding what to watch on a tablet in your lap is a different problem to finding something using a gesture based UI on a games console when with friends or on a smartphone in the train. Users are in a different state of mind, with very different interfaces, yet the TV-Everywhere operator has to provide some form of content recommendation consistency. So the recommendation problem is now even more an integral part of the user experience and EPG challenge. It can no longer be treated as a separate feature with a “click here to see our recommendations” button.

But Nicolas, as you like numbers here are seven strong reasons for an operator to introduce a recommendation engine.

1)     Breaking through the clutter: Assort endless information to choose from on TV screen,

2)     Revenue up: Increase usage by having users watch more content instead of browsing,

3)     Churn down: subscribers that get what they want faster will be happier,

4)     New customers: nothing beets a demo at the neighbor’s house,

5)     New revenue streams: some content that was gathering dust is valuable if it can be targeted to the right users,

6)     Serving all screens: Recommendation offers a good opportunity to provide consistency across multiple devices where the user’s context is different,

7)     First mover advantage: we are still early enough in the recommendation game and there are some innovations available that will let any operator with the vision and boldness to really differentiate.

  1. How can recommendation engines best fulfill these needs?

Content recommendation solutions are usually classified with technical criteria depending on how they work under the hood. Without going into the details these include approaches like Semantic Analysis, where the recommendation engine uses the information contained in the content metadata to create clusters of similar or related programs. Collaborative Filtering is the technique Amazon has made commonplace with the “people who like what you like also like this” feature. Other distinguishing features include a declarative approach where the recommendation system uses information that the viewer gave willingly, i.e. “I like action thrillers & sport but I don’t like romantic comedy”. One of the trickier technique to implement in an IPTV setup is Behavior Analysis, where the system learn what you like more from what you actually watch than from what you say you like.

But the most important success or failure criteria are in how the end-solution is integrated so that it:

  • is seamlessly and non-obtrusively part of the user experience, without users having to go to special recommendation pages,
  • simply exploits the available metadata properly before doing anything too sophisticated,
  • fully exploits all available user data (this is usually an OSS/BSS challenge),
  • interacts with other systems like the “Social TV Intelligence” you are working on,
  • is transparent enough for users to understand why a recommendation is made to them,
  • adapts to the screen being used,
  • is flexible so operators can influence the system to promote content with better margins, or for which they have already paid a minimum guaranty

Note that interacting with OTT and open information sources seems very attractive, but may not apply in all situations. TV usage scenarios always retain some lean back elements, even if a lean forward experience is less rare. Viewers welcoming technology under the hood to simplify navigation won’t necessarily welcome a detailed Wikipedia page to help them choose what movie to watch. Indeed as we said earlier, one of the main reasons for being of recommendation was information overload, so be weary of presenting more information to viewers.

  1. Nicolas, you've designed a "social TV intelligence" engine, Blended TV; could you introduce us to this market?

Social TV is digital interaction between people about television content or their digital interaction with that content, as defined by Futurescape.TV.

In my opinion, Social TV covers 3 main domains:

  • Firstly is the domain of Content discovery where the EPG is enhanced with Internet information web sites, and social recommendations through Twitter feed and Facebook. Social reviews nurture social curation ("Social TV essentially makes everyone a curator"), empowering viewers to filter and voice their opinions, and then to participate.
  • Secondly there is Participative TV where viewers interact with the program for voting, betting, polling, playing, converse with characters and TV presenter, Live Tweet or Facebook chat, and buy things related to the program.
  • Finally the domain of Device and cloud control is where you enable channel flicking from a smart phone, flinging stored or bookmarked content around the home, or the world, one-click options to bookmark or save shows to cloud storage (universal queue).

Social TV corresponds as well to the emergence of the Companion App on smart phone & tablets, making all the connections, discovery, participation, control and giving access to all sorts of TV viewing as well: "broadcast" TV, VoD, catch up, and streaming media.

Smart phones and tablets are called the second screen in this context. A second screen brings many benefits: it is convenient (“big picture on TV, Facebook on second screen”), intuitive, frictionless, personal, and of vital importance to many operators, it is already paid for and can be monetized!

While Social TV meets high usage growth, competition is fierce: more than "50 apps currently socialize your TV"!

Once the dust of Social TV hype settles, content recommendation will be changed forever

IV Nicolas, to design your "social TV intelligence" engine, called Blended TV, where did you look for innovative inspiration?

We laid our design on 3 pillars: belief, metaphor, and model following Prof. Nonaka’s framework.

  • Belief = our starting point was the belief that there is great value in social conversations around TV, but that this value is difficult to capture with the tools available to us, especially for non frequent users. Our idea was to filter out the noise so as to enable content discovery in real-time, by providing TV buzz and clean content trends, in-depth conversations related to a program, social TV computed data and metrics.
  • Metaphor = Our metaphor was that of a filter, or a funnel.
  • Model = from the outset, we based our approach on collaborative design. Rather than completing an end-user application, we focus our innovation endeavor on a social TV component, an underlying enabling technology, which could be embedded in various end-user applications and devices, letting others make value out of our data and build services on top of our platform through an API.

This component, called Blended TV is a semantic engine scanning social conversations, harnessing comments and filtering them. It was developed within an open innovation  framework: we partnered with a social media intelligence specialist called Mesagraph and benefited from the precious overview of designer Jean-Louis Frechin from NoDesign. We also cooperated with Social TV consultants (Thibault Celier @kindoftv, Marc-Emmanuel Foucart), harnessed accurate insights  (@gip89, @advid, @laouffir) and leveraged on HTML5 and interactive video skills from Djingle.

Our bet starts to win-back: developed in very short time, Blended TV is currently used or in the process of being used by various applications within Orange (Orange Sports web portal, Rendez-Vous TV / Le Mag TV companion app, Roland Garros app, Orange France web portal), and outside Orange (Broadcasters, TV metrics provider, TV guide).

V Nicolas, why is there so much buzz about the rise of Social TV?

Social TV challenges the paradigm of  TV ratings:

  • Nielsen has analyzed the relationship between social media buzz and TV ratings. It has shown "significant relationship throughout a TV show’s season among all age groups, with the strongest correlation among younger demos (people aged 12-17 and 18-34), and a slightly stronger overall correlation for women compared to men".

  • Social media is a great measure of audience engagement, viewers engaging to become content ambassadors on online media, before, during, and after the show is aired; "in particular, 27-33 year-old women on Facebook are the most active sharers, and drive the highest conversion rates"!
  • Social recommendations encourage interactivity, meaning stickiness to a program, and provide strong user behavior data, that can further processed to target users for advertising purpose and specific offerings.

Some predict an even stronger impact, amending the story telling:

Viewers’ engagement around TV shows will become so massive that it will start undermining the current ways of creating shows and become the main driver for new TV content" claims Anne-Marie Roussel, expert in Social TV at Sharp in Silicon Valley.

It's a major issue for broadcasters and networks. “The future isn’t either traditional or digital: it’s a feedback loop between the two. Television fans want to get involved and be counted. It’s how creative we are in engaging those fans – and keeping them connected – that will determine how potent and profitable we will be in the future.” says Kevin Reilly, President of Entertainment, Fox Broadcasting.

"Content will then be created with social interaction in mind", adds Anne-Marie, "the audience will be able to interact with the storyline". Voting online for some game shows, and affecting the outcome of the show is just a start: welcome to the era of Transmedia!

VI Is to possible to merge recommendations from dedicated engines and social media? What is the challenge to meet success from a customer point of view?

Nicolas: the main challenge and the main objective of this endeavor remain relevancy and simplicity.

Mixing engine-based and social-media recommendation should bring the best of both worlds to end-users. But we’ll have to respect the specific cultures of each world to provide a straightforward and accurate suggestion.

Furthermore, consumers use a variety of sources to discover what’s personally relevant. Richard Edelman distinguishes 4 main spheres in “Media Cloverleaf”:

I believe the user interface has to screen the complexity of the engine, reflected in the various spheres, and the range of data that could be processed by a recommendation tool, such as program metadata and consumer behavior.

It should "combine the different types of recommendations together and come out with a perfect mix", presenting a very simple proposal of "what's up/recommended tonight", learning to know the viewer better everyday ("the system recognizes me!") and enable him to refine settings if he wants to engage more.

I also see social curation as creating an opportunity for a second loop for recommendation, exposing the suggestion to the social network of the user, and starting viralization of the content service … so lots to explore and I certainly think it’s worth testing and iterating!

Ben: All the recommendation engine vendors already claim to be implementing social recommendation, but much of that is vaporware so I agree with you Nicolas that there is an exciting opportunity for experimentation. Social TV will probably change the TV landscape forever. However, I don’t yet know if it’s just another feature, albeit an important one, or a real paradigm changing disruption. Issues remaining include the fact that I simply don’t want to broadcast all of what I watch to my whole social network, so I’d say that two key challenges and success criteria will include a seamless integration, and a very powerful filtering mechanism.

“Who is in front of the TV?” has proven to be an obstacle that many recommendation solutions couldn’t satisfactorily overcome. Social TV has a great side effect: it brings personal second screens into the living room.

The 50 competing apps you mentioned at the beginning of our discussion Nicolas, are all in the early hype phase. But even if they never truly deliver on their fantastic promises of a new social TV paradigm, they will at least enable plain-vanilla recommendation to at last work fully i.e. personally.

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Social X 2010

I’ve been called an IPTV veteran, which makes me feel a bit outdated. People must unfortunately be right because the biggest surprise when I first arrived at the Social X event in London on Tuesday was how much younger people were, with trendier clothes and many more women than at your typical “veteran’s” IPTV event. (the X in Social X is for Media, TV, Mobile, Enterprise or anything else you fancy). Also, apart from a few Nokia-laden Scandinavians, non-iPhone users were very hard to spot. In fact it almost felt like an Apple convention, with dozens of MacBooks (all pros so there must be money in Social X for now) for maybe just 3 or 4 PC’s sighted in all.

I first spoke to TV Genius. In my initial daze about how different it felt, I was wondering what a content recommendation company was doing here (or maybe I’d got it wrong and was already at IPTV World Forum) until it dawned on me that the very first really powerful feature to come out of any social X network is …  wait for it … recommendation. Well Social recommendation at least. Doh.

TV Genius is a 30-person company with a B2B model, offering search and recommendation services on sites like and in some IPTV deployments. I was surprised to hear that the extra content added around TV listing is still only more video content. I was expecting more OTT features like actors bios from Wikipedia or something. TV Genius told me that this is due to their clients’ requirements; their technology could apparently do it all. So far all implementations including the latest with Fetch TV have a walled-garden feel to them.

TV Genius, like its competitors, uses a mix of approaches and technologies. If full anonymity is required then you can only use an approach based on the content itself. TV Genius then use a map built from anonymous user activity. The lines and bubbles on the walls of their booth are meant to convey this map. Explicit profiles can be supported, but this seems less relevant in the TV space than on the web. Many of the technologies under the hood like collaborative filtering grew up with the Internet over a decade ago. I’d be running a bit scared if Amazon were to enter this market directly.

I popped into the Cloud Computing conference to get a flavour of what this new buzzword is all about. Just enter those three words into Google and you’ll see what I mean. Eachen Fletcher from Sporting Index gave one of those refreshing talks where he had nothing to sell, just experience to share.

Is this just a little step forward draped in oozes of hype or something real?  Like with the whole social X thing the jury is also out on this one. But gosh, I feel even more of veteran in this IT environment. I remember back in the late eighties when object orientation was going to revolutionize IT. Sure it happened, but quietly, the hype just dissipated into the ether. At the same time HTML came to enable exciting web features then Java for the apps. When it turned out to be a mess of non-maintainable spaghetti code to get anything at all sophisticated up and running, XML came along with its style sheets to separate presentation from content. Around then Larry Ellison took on Microsoft with his net computer concept, and lost. The feeling I got is that cloud computing is another episode in this same drama. Much of Ellison’s vision may just have been off by a decade or so because the web wasn’t yet ubiquitous. If I were an IT manager in 2010 I’d have a team focussing on cloud computing, especially while it’s financially trendy to shift CAPEX to OPEX. That’s the biggest benefit of cloud computing, i.e. spending a lot less to start with even if the bill, 10 years on, ends up much bigger.

Back to Social X, Tom McDonnell is the man to talk to for some straight answers here. He started testing games while still at school in Liverpool. He looks young enough for that to have been yesterday so he must qualify. But after listening to him I do believe him that it was over decade ago. He’s a techie who has kept a customer-centric approach like the CTO of a content company or the CMO of a tech one.

He met up with the cofounder of his current company Monterosa while working on BBC’s ‘Test the nation’. They left in 2003 to build the web part of the program. Since then they have specialized in real-time elements to make the TV experience more enjoyable. I suppose that’s one of his definitions of Social TV (see Agit8or’s blog and comments for more or Tom’s own definition here).

When I questioned Tom about how hard Social TV is to implement in an open i.e. OTT environment, he lamented the absence of an open standard, albeit one that simply identifies shows uniquely.

McDonnell is sceptical about obscuring the main TV screen with anything widgety, especially when a good show is on. He points out that Social TV is usually personal even when it’s around a family TV show. For the time being Monterosa therefore sees Social TV as being a multi-screen experience so you can be uniquely identified and have some privacy.

Tom agreed with me that many platform operators will try to retain control through technology and that a conflict of interest could arise with TV stations. That’s why some big Telco TV operators are trying to do business directly with the production companies that own the big shows.

In the afternoon, the panel I chaired was on the challenges faced by existing TV platforms to embrace social TV. Actually, we only had Cable platforms around the table with lively speakers from UPC and Virgin so I tried to stand in a bit for the DSL crowd. The supplier NDS and the industry body GVF made up the rest of the panel.

Despite my insistence, it turns out that the tech challenges are quite hard to pinpoint. The Appstore ecosystem captured a lot of attention with questions and comments from the audience too. That at least does have a little technology issue to it, i.e. you need an application environment rather than just a web one. NDS pointed out another: we will not be able to build Social TV with Apple’s approach to third party apps. Full multitasking will be required so you never lose an instant of the live program even if there is a surge of tweets … Apart from that it does seem plain sailing from a technology standpoint.

I agree with Agit8ors comments on the surprising lack of Canvas talk at the conference. I tried baiting my NDS speaker with the fact that they are linked to Sky, a would-be Canvas-killer, but to no avail; he just smiled back politely.

I took the panel through one of the traditional crystal ball sessions. NDS sees non-content-aware widgets dying out this year. Recommendation and specifically social recommendation (i.e. recreating the water-cooler moment) is Virgin’s bet in the short term for mass-market adoption. GVF sees more user generated content pushing social X forwards whereas UPC will be happy if the Red-button just gets a bit sexier and Flash(ier) this year.

An interesting question came in from twitter on whether Social TV would remain market specific or if we’d see some international communities emerging. Nobody agreed on this one and UPC saw it as a non-issue as most programming is market specific; the Anglo-British Virgin Media unsurprisingly concurred. I pointed out that if Social X takes off significantly this could blur some boundaries and globalize the market a bit more. Writing this now I find it a depressing prospect.

I wonder if is significant that the only meeting I’d set-up in advance, with Sofanatics, a company that is a Social TV pure player, didn’t materialise because of missed tweets. Sofanatics create virtual rooms for fans to aggregate and cheer on their teams. I later found a tweet saying they had 26,000 visitors and 2000 registered users during their winter Olympics push for the hockey semi-final between Finland and the US. Visitors came from 92 countries. I caught up with Toni Laturi from the Finnish Company, who cheered me up on globalisation at least. He said, “What we learned is that the viewers really wanted to share their emotions and passion online. One guy even promised to pay his TV fee because of the service :). Expats were very involved, although that could also be due to the difficult times of the games in the middle of the night for most of us”. It looks like Sofanatics should share their data with UPC, who don’t see Social TV crossing borders.

I left this conference with new ideas. Firstly, I won’t let the hype around Social X hide the underlying paradigm shift from me anymore. I came to the conference from an IPTV perspective, narrow-mindedly expecting Social TV on the big screen. Well no longer. Tom McDonnel convinced me that, in 2010 at least, Social TV will be a multi-screen experience i.e. laptop or iPad on your knee or Smartphone in your hand. One of the conference speakers also pointed out that the TV hardware lifecycle just couldn’t match the required pace of change of bleeding-edge technology. Maybe that’s where my lingering doubt about the technology block comes from, because all the people I spoke to were adamant that technology isn’t the issue for social TV like it was for IPTV a few years ago.

My feeling like an old fart among all the youngsters was compounded by a sense of déjà-vu. Social X conferences in 2010 feel just like IPTV conferences did in 2005. Being part of a secret elite ‘in the know’. We gambled then that we were onto something big and even if IPTV still has a long way to go it looks like we were right. What a coincidence, Ian who runs the show, also started the IPTV World Series in 2005 and is one of the rare people to have made some money out of being right with IPTV. See ya next week to rant and hopefully rave a bit about that too.

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Social TV Forum 16/03/10 15:00

[lang_en]The Social TV Forum takes place on March 16th at Olympia in London. Ben is chairing the panel at 3PM on technical Challenges of bringing social media onto the TV. Panelists are Kevin Baughan, Head of Technical Strategy, Virgin Media, Martin Jarrold, Cheif, International Programme Development GVF, Andrew Kearney, VP TV Products, UPC Broadband and Guillaume de Saint Marc, VP R&D New Initiatives, NDS. Guillaume from NDS will kick the discussion off with a short presentation of what those challenges really are. I'll write something up for[/lang_en]

[lang_fr]Le Social TV Forum a lieu le 16 mars à Olympia, Londres. Ben sera chairman d'une table ronde à 15h sur les défis techniques pour amener les médias sociaux ("social media") à la TV. Kevin Baughan, Head of Technical Strategy, Virgin Media, Martin Jarrold, Cheif, International Programme Development GVF, Andrew Kearney, VP TV Products, UPC Broadband et Guillaume de Saint Marc, VP R&D New Initiatives à NDS seront les intervenants. Guillaume démarrera avec un rapide aperçu de ce défi technique. Vous trouverez un compte rendu par la suite sur[/lang_fr]