Is Facebook Good For TV?

It wouldn’t seem to be. But social TV, where people interact with their friends on a second screen while they’re watching a show, may be boosting ratings

Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg thinks watching TV should be a social experience.
Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg thinks watching TV should be a social experience. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Andrew Feinberg

Today Mark Zuckerberg turns 28. Friday, he turns billionaire.

That’s when his creation, Facebook, is scheduled to go public, a move that, by some estimates, will make Zuckerberg worth about $19 billion. Not a bad week, eh?

But with all that fortune comes some pain. Soon every move he makes will be subject to Wall Street’s unsparing scrutiny, every misstep analyzed as more proof that he’s still closer to his Harvard dorm room than a CEO suite. He sought to reassure the skeptics and rouse the boosters at a pre-IPO roadshow last week, starting on Wall Street and ending in Silicon Valley.

Zuckerberg told potential investors that the company’s top priorities will be to improve the Facebook mobile experience–its members now average seven hours a month checking updates on their smart phones–and to develop a model for mobile advertising so each of us sees only the type of ads for which we’ve expressed a preference.

But Zuckerberg also mentioned another big Facebook frontier, one that could be just as big a part of our daily lives. It’s what’s become known as social TV–basically using social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter, to connect people viewing TV shows, even though they’re watching on different screens in different zip codes, sometimes on different continents.

People have been talking up social TV for a few years now, but no question that it’s moving mainstream. Next week the first social TV “world summit” will convene in London and last week, at a social TV conference sponsored by Ad Age, network execs, such as Bravo EVP Lisa Hsia, suggested that all the the social chatter before, during and after programs is being seen as actual content and not just promotion. On Bravo, for instance, a new series, “Around the World in 80 Plates” was kicked off with a contest on Twitter and this summer a Facebook game tied to “Real Housewives of New York” will roll out, with top online players getting shout-outs on air.

But Facebook’s immersion in our TV-watching could go well beyond games and fan pages. At that same Ad Age conference, Kay Madati, who heads the social network’s entertainment division, raised the possibility of Facebook-enabled TVs being able to automatically record programs that a certain percentage of your friends had “liked.”

That’s what friends are for, right?

The power of the second screen

Some go so far as to suggest that Facebook could actually save TV. One is Nick Thomas, an analyst for London-based Informa Telecoms and Media. He acknowledges that, at the moment, Facebook seems more threat than boon because research shows more and more people are actually focusing on their small screens–laptops, tablets, smart phones–while occasionally looking up at the big screen.

But he argues that savvy TV programmers will tap into Facebook and Twitter chatter to boost a show’s fan community or turn live TV into a special event shared by millions–some with something actually witty, poignant or insightful to say. More often than not, the best part of award shows now are the tweets about what’s happening on stage. (There were an estimated 13 million social media comments made during this year’s Grammy Awards.) And nothing cranks up the drama of a sporting event like a torrent of tweets.

Case in point: Last week, after Texas Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton hit three home runs in a ball game, word spread quickly on social networks, according to Bob Bowman, an exec for Major League Baseball. By the time Hamilton smacked a fourth homer, the audience for the game had swelled.

“As the player hits that third home run, fans are all over the place chatting about it,” said Bowman. “I think it’s complementary. As soon as something is happening, fans want to get to as many people as possible.”

Social behavior

But social TV isn’t just about the big boys. Here’s a sampling of some of the startups hoping to cash in on the obession with the second screen:

  • Who says they couldn’t pay me to watch TV?: Oh, yes they can. Viggle is a free app that rewards you for watching TV shows. You simply “check in” by holding your iPhone to the TV screen and that earns you points depending on how long you watch. Once you earn enough–and it will take awhile–you can redeem them for products at Best Buy, Amazon, Starbucks, etc. Plus, the app keeps you entertained while you watch, providing you with games, quizzes, real-time polls, even video clips tied to the show. Active Viggle members–there are now 625,000–now check in about five times a day, with each session lasting an average of an hour and a half.
  • Talk amongst yourselves: For those who want to bond with people who like the same TV programs, there’s GetGlue. It’s a social network designed to connect people around entertainment, but most of its action has been about TV shows. Once they check in, fans can let their friends know what they’re watching. They also can post comments, ask questions of other devotees, rate snarky retorts. Plus, members can collect stickers of their favorite stars. (I’ll trade you a Don Draper for a “Game of Thrones.”) So far, 2 million people have signed up.
  • But wait, there’s more: When it started out, Miso was another iPhone app that let you check in to flag your friends about what you’re watching. But it has ratcheted things up with a feature called SideShows. These are slideshows of additional content–some of it created by fans–to run in sync with the show on the big screen.
  • Making trends meet: BuddyTV combines a viewing guide on your smart phone with chat and fan discussions and also being able to announce what shows you are watching on Facebook and Twitter. But it also suggests shows that are airing now, coming up, trending, or on your favorites list.
  • Name that tune: Shazam first became popular as a smart phone app that could identify songs for you. It made a big splash with its second-screen content during the Super Bowl and the Grammys and now SyFy, Bravo and USA are “Shazaming” shows and ads to keeps viewers engaged with a show from episode to episode.

Video bonus: Still not clear on social TV? GetGlue’s COO Fraser Kelton gives you the lowdown on the latest trends.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.