The Faces of Social Television [backchannels]

faces of social television

The interactive aspect of television runs an entire continuum; from the instinctive changing of channels, to selecting movies on-demand (depending on cable provider), to the more esoteric real-time SMS voting, allowing viewers to affect the program being watched (e.g. American Idol).

Ironically, of all the interactive features a television could have, the conversational aspect of television viewing seems strangely absent. Unless you’re watching a televised event in the same physical commune as your family or friends, the traditional media experience still seems to be a depressingly solitude affair. Just think of the solo enjoyment of reading a book or listening to your iPod; the content genre is not immediately scaled with your like-minded peers.

This week’s U.S. Presidential debate between Barack Obama and John McCain could have well sparked off a revival of socially driven television. Especially useful for real-time socio-political events, having users share the televised experience through tele-conversation could help the viewer in sense-making new and emerging realities.


There could be many technological variations, but here are three different modes (faces) of social television. They share a common solution of setting chat overlays as backchannels for video programming:

Social TV: Chat Widget on Joost

Mode 1: Online TV Shows
My first integrated social television experience was realized through Joost, where the desktop player featured several interactive widgets enabling you to gain contextual information about the show you were watching. One of the widgets was Channel Chat, where you could chat with other viewers watching the same channel at the same time as you.

This was mostly a hit-or-miss situation, especially since Joost featured an enormous collection of pre-recorded video, rather than live events which would have bound users to a specific viewing time. The same concept could be applied to other TV networks that share their shows online, such as Hulu, ABC and Comedy Central. As an intermediary, TV networks have the distinct advantage of controlling managing the conversation flow.

Social TV: Neuros Crowd Narration

Mode 2: Set-Top Box
BoingBoing highlights developments at letting viewers “crowd-subtitle” the U.S. presidential debate via the Neuros OSD (Open-Source Device) set-top box. Essentially, the technology allows two lines of chat commentary to be superimposed over any show or televised event users are watching. Participants need an OSD and a web browser pointed to narration.neuros.tv for access to the debate broadcast.

From Neuros developers: “In today’s world of big media it can sometimes be hard for us to let our voice be heard. In few places is this more the case than on TV, which has until very recently remained strictly a one-way medium. Welcome to what we like to call “crowd narration”. This technology allows any individual to join part in a much larger discussion around current events, news, sports, and day-to-day TV programmes”.

The same idea could work for other networked set-top boxes, including TiVo or even Slingbox DVRs. What makes this interesting, is that this approach separates the backchannel provider from the content provider, thereby creating a third space for mediated democratic discourse. In the case of Neuros users, it’s free-for-all and unmoderated as you’ll see in this video demo.

Social TV: CurrentTV + Twitter + Presidential Debate

Mode 3: Hybrid TV + Web channel
One of the most tweeted events today is “Hack the Debate“. Current TV & Twitter have teamed up for the first time to integrate real-time Twitter messages (aka “tweets”) over major portions of a live television broadcast.

In other words, “Hack the debate by adding your Twitter posts to our live broadcast of the 2008 Presidential Debates”.

To participate, users tune in to Current TV on September 26th at 9pm EST for the Live Presidential Debate, and chime in by including “#current” in their tweet. If they don’t have Current TV on their cable plan, they can also watch the video stream live online. Similarly, other television news networks could follow suit, and moderate postings as they see fit.

Alternative Modes
While I have mentioned three integrated approaches for social television, other more traditional approaches have existed with an indirect relationship to televised content. For instance, I’ve known of friends watching Project Runway (reality TV) from their own homes calling one another to talk about who they think would win. More typical is the dual-screen approach, where friends would either instant message or twitter on their laptops while watching TV.

Finally, while I’ve heard of TV-to-IP P2P networks in South East Asia re-broadcasting football matches online, there’s also been an interesting trend where users would re-broadcast televised sporting events via popular video streaming sites such as Justin.tv. Rocketboom’s Andrew Baron spotted a more bizarre instance of this, where he witnessed a re-broadcasted tennis match coming out of a FILA sports store on Madison Ave at 43rd street in NYC. He notes…

Social TV: Rebroadcasting football game on Justin.tv

Technically speaking, I think it’s interesting that anonymous people are using sites like justin.tv to rebroadcast mainstream media over i.p. to TV’s receiving the streams over i.p. in stores that then rebroadcast out windows to city passerbys in the streets of New York City. A sign of the times indeed.

This act of placeshifting gets rather convoluted on a number of levels, especially with regards to copyright. What I’d like to focus on however, is how netizens are able to circumvent the distribution of live video as a real-time medium, and adding a conversational element to it via the streaming video channel’s chat feature. There is legitimate reason for doing this, especially where television networks fail to provide such conversational backchannels.

As a media industry, we’ve fairly mastered the art of buying rights to pre-recorded video content, but is there a better method of sharing live television experience with distant friends? Alternatively, have you seen anymore unique ways people socialize around real-time televised events?

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