Tweeting with the telly on

By Jane Wakefield
Technology reporter

image captionWatching TV is no longer a passive experience

The days of families reverentially gathered around the box may be long gone but the doom-mongers who said that on-demand would kill linear TV completely may also be somewhat off the mark.

A new generation of viewers is watching what has been dubbed social TV - a synthesis between TV and social networking.

A recent study from marketing agency Digital Clarity found that 80% of under-25s used a second screen to communicate with friends while watching TV and 72% used Twitter, Facebook or a mobile app to comment on shows.

Currently it is little more sophisticated than watching TV with one eye on Twitter or Facebook, but that is beginning to change as TV executives start to experiment with greater social networking integration.

In New Zealand, TVNZ has just launched a new youth channel which sees Facebook heavily integrated to create an interactive entertainment and music show.

The backbone of the schedule is U live, a show that features chat and commentary driven by a Facebook app. It includes profile pictures, comments and polling activity which automatically become part of the programme.

Holy grail

image captionUsers comment on all sorts of live TV programmes, including Escape to the Country.

Last month the US channel HBO ran the Howard Stern movie Private Parts with Stern himself commenting live on Twitter throughout the broadcast.

Twitter bosses are excited about the possibilities of deeper integration with TV, although they are still in the process of figuring out how they will make money from it.

Speaking at Mobile World Congress, Twitter chief executive Dick Costolo claimed that the search for the TV industry's holy grail - a second screen - was over.

"That second screen is Twitter," he said.

The hope is that the conversations started on Twitter can be carried on, and even shaped by TV executives, although how far this will alienate tweeters is open to debate.

According to a Nielsen mobile study, more than 85% of mobile and PC users access the web while watching TV.

But only 24% were looking at content related to the TV programme, while others used it to text family and friends (56%), visit social networks (40%) and browse unrelated content (37%).

Robin Sloan, from Twitter's media partnership team, thinks there is definitely an appetite among the Twitterati for more integration.

He told BBC News that the service saw huge spikes in traffic when certain shows were on - soap operas, live sporting events and reality shows.

"It's remarkable because the Twitter conversation will be going along a few tweets here and there and as soon as a new episode premieres or the Oscars start or a game kicks off, the tweets per minute skyrocket and we see it multiply 10, 20, 50 times and it stays like this until the show ends.

"People like to talk about this stuff as it is happening, which is sort of counter-intuitive because a lot of folks are talking about time shifting and everything being on-demand," he said.

So what is the next stage for Twitter on TV?

Promoted tweets

"At this stage they [TV executives] are primarily using Twitter to engage their existing audience and give them something to talk about. Our goal is to get Twitter integrated into TV shows," said Robin Sloan.

"It means that people think about Twitter as a source of really, really great content and frankly it means that Twitter gets in front of a really big audience."

Promoted tweets, which allow businesses to pay to have their Twitter comments elevated, are one of the main current revenue sources for the firm.

News networks, such as the Washington Post and Al Jazeera were already using promoted tweets to tell people about their news contents and live streams, said Mr Sloan.

There is an obvious correlation between them and Twitter, which has increasingly becoming a tool for breaking news.

"When you walk into a newsroom these days, every other monitor has a Twitter feed on it," said Mr Sloan.

Although, when it comes to finding ways to integrate it into broadcast, it can be a different proposition.

"It means they have to get new kinds of technology to put tweets up on air in real time. We tell some networks they have to do this and they say 'our broadcast graphics were invented in 1963 - we can't do that right now', while others are totally ready to go," he said.

Product placement

Integrating Twitter with TV dramas is proving more problematic.

"With scripted drama, people talk about them on Twitter but not quite in the same way.

"If you are the producer of one of those big shows - let's say CSI or NCIS - and you come to us and say, how should I integrate Twitter into my show? That's actually something we are still trying to figure out," said Mr Sloan.

"This is all still really new and we don't know exactly how Twitter works best or what the right tools are, but we are always looking for partners willing to experiment," he said.

image captionDick Costolo says Twitter is the long-sought after second screen

Not everyone is convinced that acting as a second screen will be a huge cash cow for Twitter.

"There is not a huge opportunity for Twitter to monetise this," said Jonathan Doran, a principal analyst at Ovum.

"Social TV is being described as one of the next big things, but in reality people are struggling to know what they would do with it. There are limited amounts of interacting with content. We haven't seen much blending of TV content into social media," he said.

But savvy advertising executives are already beginning to see the possibilities, according to Reggie James, managing director of Digital Clarity.

"There will be more social platforms from advertisers allowing users to carry on enjoying and talking about their favourite TV programmes. The old-fashioned models of advertising will be replaced by things like more product placement," he said.

And while social TV might be heralding a modernisation of advertising, it could also be keeping the home fires burning for the TV industry.

"Social TV is a modern version of the old days of gathering round the TV to watch a variety show on a Saturday night," said Mr James.

More on this story