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Opinions expressed by contributors are their own. The advent of American Idol in 2002 brought us some things we hadn’t really seen before on T.V. There was Kelly Clarkson’s vocal range, not to mention Simon Cowell’s scowl. But perhaps more impactful was the show’s voting system, which allowed fans to select by phone or text the contestants they wanted to advance to the next round.
Idol helped introduce a new level of interactivity, community and urgency into a viewing experience that had traditionally been one-way and one-dimensional. Yet, other than competitive reality contests and a few related inroads since, the concept of interactive T.V. has remained on the sidelines. Sure, we may have a second-screen open these days — checking stats online, geeking out with fellow fans on Twitter or Zoom — but the viewing experience itself remains stubbornly one-directional and solitary.
But that may be about to change. Taking a cue from platforms as diverse as Fortnite, Twitch and Netflix, innovators are finally seeking out ways to make T.V. social, personalized and interactive — all on a single screen. It’s clearly a concept whose time has come … though whether legacy players, from content producers to distributors, will accelerate this shift or stand in the way remains to be seen.
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Importantly, when it comes to truly interactive viewing experiences — known in industry parlance as co-viewing — we’ve already got plenty of models. Twitch, the gaming platform where users watch and comment as gamers compete, offers a prime example. The platform builds strong, engaged communities who interact in real time, chiming in with a constantly unfolding stream of comments and emojis, all while their favorite stars play games live. And it all unfolds on a single, convenient screen, without a need for extra devices.
So how can we bring that kind of dynamic, co-viewing experience to TV? One emerging option: apps that overlay interactive functionality on top of existing programming. Take the example of GameOn Technologies, whose technology is now found in millions of set-top boxes in the US. Its platform allows viewers watching sports to play interactive games related to what’s happening on the screen — betting for points on who’s going to score the next goal or touchdown or competing in challenges against each other.
And that’s only the beginning of the co-viewing potential. As industry analysts John Kosner and J. Moses point out in the context of watching the NFL, “To start, imagine tonight’s CBS viewing experience with a “+” button where you could easily add friends and then “share your screen” for the synched game telecast plus access to merch, prop betting and fantasy and other streamers.” Initiatives to create this kind of experience are being explored by giants like Yahoo as well as startups like Teleparty and LiveLike.
The applications extend beyond sports. You could be watching Survivor or The Bachelor and bet on who’s going to be kicked off next with your friends. If you’re watching a scripted drama, you and fellow fans can chat about it all on the same screen.
The pay-off for the viewer is the kind of social engagement and active participation — in short, community — that formerly required a second screen. Over time, consumers can also benefit from personalized recommendations, just like Netflix, Crave or most any online experience, based on their viewing history.
There’s also a clear upside for brands who are able to tap into these communities. At a time when fewer people are willing to endure traditional commercials — Ipsos found that only 45 percent of ads on T.V. are currently watched — interactive viewing platforms offer an opportunity for more relevant and less invasive marketing tactics. Just as different people see different ads on the web, interactive T,V, ads can be customized based on past behaviors or microtargeted to specific communities.
Furthermore, traditional interruptive ads could be replaced by creative and integrated campaigns, deployed without pulling away from programming. Think about an interactive game sponsored by a beverage maker or a fast-food giveaway tied to the home team scoring a set number of points. Viewers could even use their remote to click and buy apparel, gadgets or housewares featured in popular shows, as they watch (not to mention “virtual goods,” like digital avatars or in-game currencies, that already constitute a $79 billion global market).
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Clearly, the time has come for a more integrated personal viewing experience. But with isolated exceptions, it’s been a struggle to actually put it into practice.
This isn’t really a tech challenge. After all, most of the tools we need to make viewing a social experience — smart T.V.s and cable boxes, broadband connections and HD cameras, algorithms to serve personalized recommendations, cross-platform data collection — already exist. Rather, the challenge is an institutional and cultural one.
Ingrained habits we’ve spent decades forming and validating with T.V. as viewers will need to change. As Wired culture columnist Peter Rubin points out, “interactive T.V. starts at a disadvantage: It is arriving just as we’ve learned, in so many ways, not to interact at all.” We need to unlearn the notion of ourselves as “couch potatoes,” passively “vegging out” in front of the tube, and instead start to see T.V. and streaming as a true extension of our other interactive digital media.
Meanwhile, content distributors and content producers also need to embrace a mental shift, especially in an era of disengaged and declining TV viewership. (Some 8 million American households have “cut the cord” in the last two years, making for about 44 million households without pay TV service in total). Under the traditional broadcasting model, rightsholders and licensees lock up content, rather than opening it up for sharing and interacting. But this frustrates the development of dedicated communities, limits advertising options and short circuits new revenue streams.
In this respect, TikTok, Twitch and Instagram aren’t the competition as much as models to emulate. For producers and distributors, social TV promises new ways to engage and build audiences and new ways to monetize them.
The good news: Millennial and Gen Z expectations have already shifted. They’ve been brought up on technology adapting to their preferences, whether through playlists or recommended viewings, and on social and streaming platforms where community, interactivity and personalization is the default. It’s something the viewing public will increasingly come to expect, and TV — reluctantly or not — finally seems ready to evolve with them.