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You’ll Never Watch TV Alone Again

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Want to know whether Modern Family or your favorite TV show will be back next season? Check out that program’s presence in the social media arena, according to the Social TV Summit held Wednesday in New York City. Networks and the marketers that advertise on them are beginning to salivate over the information social media reveal about television audiences. As a result, programs that don’t lend themselves to Facebook apps, Twitter exchanges or other online audience interaction are likely to find themselves on the chopping block.

TV networks have taken to dividing their audience into two new segments. The first is the younger “lean-forward” crowd that watches programs with laptop, iPad or smart phone in hand, ready to more actively participate in the buzz around a show. The second is the “lean-back” audience used to watching TV the same way it was for most folks in the 20th century—in digital isolation, with remote control in hand. Sitting posture aside, TV networks are catching on that many viewers want more interaction with each other and the programs themselves.

Facebook‘s collaboration with USA Network to promote Psych is a case study in social TV’s success, according to Facebook. Prior to the current season of Psych, USA and Facebook created an interactive social media mystery game tie-in called #HashTagKiller that let the audience help the show’s main characters solve a mystery over a seven-week period (the season’s first seven episodes). Players could log directly onto the game site or access the site through Facebook, where they would be privy to a Twitter-like news feed containing clues to solving the #HashTagKiller case and interact with the show’s characters. The game follows the Psych Vision iPhone and iPad apps that USA launched last year for the show and allowed audience members to interact online, view unaired content and earn loyalty points.

Psych‘s October 12 season premier attracted 3 million viewers, up 8 percent from the previous season’s opener. Although neither USA nor Facebook can link causation between the show’s social media buzz and the ratings boost, “there is a correlation,” Kay Madati, Facebook‘s entertainment strategy lead of global customer marketing, said at Wednesday’s event. “Lots of things affect TV ratings, but there is something go on.” Fox Broadcasting has likewise been successful with its “Biggest Fan” competition to promote Glee.

New ways of integrating TV and social media continue to emerge. Yahoo’s purchase of IntoNow earlier this year widens the audience for that company’s SoundPrint software, designed to identify a TV program just by listening to ambient sound in a room via the internal microphone on an Apple or Google Android mobile device. Essentially, SoundPrint checks three-second sound bytes it hears against a Yahoo database of TV sound bytes (140 million minutes’ worth, the company claims). Once the show is identified, Yahoo can notify your friends as to what you’re watching, deliver news related to the show and its topic, and enable real-time banter via Facebook and Twitter.

Other efforts to integrate TV and the Web are also underway, including one from M.I.T. Media Lab spin-off Bluefin Labs. Bluefin’s software browses social media sites in search of comments about TV programs and reports back on those comments to help advertisers and TV show producers better understand their audiences.

Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration

Larry Greenemeier About the Author: Larry Greenemeier is the associate editor of technology for Scientific American, covering a variety of tech-related topics, including biotech, computers, military tech, nanotech and robots. Follow on Twitter @lggreenemeier.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Ribsy 9:20 pm 11/16/2011

    Like something out of “Fahrenheit 451″.

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  2. 2. jtdwyer 3:07 am 11/17/2011

    Counting social media sites’ references is also much cheaper than conducting representative viewer surveys. They might be less accurate, though, assuming social media commentators still do not represent a valid statistical sampling of the TV viewer population.

    Reliance on social media sites in assessing the success of commercial TV programs could certainly effect the future characteristics of available programs, for those who might care…

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  3. 3. Torchlake 10:03 am 11/17/2011

    Oh, what a web we weave allowing media to deceive, To do our thinking and direct our lives!
    It’s looking more and more likely this is yet another way for manipulation in a and not so subliminal control of the citizenry.
    1984 is here,Look around you. Algorithms are in control, Social media is only part of this Manipulation, television we watch is also looking back and evaluating us. Brainwashing can be subtle, subliminal and pervasive. Do we wake up in time or is it to late already!

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  4. 4. Quinn the Eskimo 2:20 am 11/25/2011

    “Quants” think they can postulate, predict anything!

    They might be right! After all, they gave us the 2007 crash.


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