The Bottomless Water Cooler: How Social TV is Redefining Entertainment
By Ariel Nishli
Earlier this month marked a turning point in the world of professional wrestling – the sort with pyrotechnics, group ambushes, and vengeful speeches. World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc., more commonly known as WWE (changed from WWF following a 2000 lawsuit by the World Wildlife Fund), held its 28th annual WrestleMania event in Miami, Florida.
WrestleMania is a pay-per-view extravaganza featuring the promotion’s most popular fighters pitted against one or more of their fellow contenders in various configurations for a chance to win the WWE Championship. One such setup is the “Money in the Bank” ladder match, in which six or more fighters trade blows until only one is left capable enough to climb a stepladder situated in the center of the ring, atop of which hangs a briefcase containing a contract guaranteeing the victor a title match.
This year’s event proved to be a watershed in WWE’s history for two quite contradictory reasons. In a throwback to WWE’s second golden age, former star wrestler-turned-movie star Dwayne Johnson aka “The Rock” donned his leotard for the first time in eight years to fight the organization’s current hero, John Cena. Conversely, in an aggressive thrust towards the future, WrestleMania maintained a near-ubiquitous presence on social media networks.
The Social Show
The marketing machine began turning a year ago, when Johnson and Cena exchanged Twitter barbs that escalated into a war of words bolstered by an army of tweeting fans, culminating in Cena treating Johnson to his signature “Attitude Adjustment”, a take on the body slam. The Rock retaliated several days later with his titular move, the “Rock Bottom.” The feud reached its pinnacle with the announcement that the staged rivalry would be settled in the ring, at WrestleMania, and broadcast for millions of fans on Pay-Per-View. Days before the battle, both fighter-entertainers launched web series on YouTube akin to HBO’s successful boxing hype program 24/7.
With their social media toolkit, the WWE deftly drew out the growing anticipation until the last possible moment. Before the first folding chair was ever lifted, a 30-minute pre-show live-streamed on YouTube, Facebook, and WWE.com, free-of-charge. Users would send in questions and comments, filtered through a giddy Mike Tyson, crowned the event’s “social media ambassador.” Twitter user @JoeyStyles offered the master of ceremonies a compliment, “I’d rather have @MikeTyson hit me with a golf club than punch me in the face! #WrestleMania.” Direct communication like this, expressing how close fans felt to the event (enough to feel the pain, apparently) was exactly the type of engagement the organization was targeting.
During the main event, WWE stars past and present continued to share photos, videos and tweets in real time while their comrades fought each other several feet away. Jason Hoch, WWE’s senior vice president of digital, explained the approach to Mashable, “We’ve noticed in some of the higher profile sports and entertainment events that the Social TV experience tended to be limited to pre-show activities. Sports stars and that true ‘social’ experience direct from the athlete to the fan disappear once the big game is live. We want to change that approach with this year’s WrestleMania.”
The WWE’s ongoing success has always been a direct result of their intimate understanding of the power of storytelling. Most organized sports must wait patiently for a talented young player to rise from obscurity, hoping for an angle to build a narrative on. LeBron James performs his crushed chalk ritual before games, Tim Tebow takes a bow to thank the man upstairs for his touchdowns, and Jeremy Lin was permanently warming the Knicks’ bench with his Harvard diploma before proving he doesn’t miss a shot.
In contrast, the WWE capitalizes on the freedom to orchestrate its own stars’ narratives, creating backstories and rivalries that keep fans invested. The show is so much more about the stories than the fighting. Even the ever-present, hushed criticism “But it’s fake!” is used to their advantage. They simply never address it, prolonging the mystery. The WWE’s forceful drive into social television is only the most recent example of a much larger transformation taking shape, namely, how the interactive medium is allowing audiences to change their very roles from passive recipients of storytelling to active participants in it.
In it’s current state, Social TV is akin to a campfire tale, wherein one person, usually a more experienced counselor or scout leader, does the storytelling. He or she draws in the eager young listeners so intently that they can’t help but burst out with interruptions. It may be to impatiently ask what happens next, to criticize an unwitting victim’s stupidity, or even to stop the storyteller right then and there because there’s no way I’m going to fall asleep now. So it is on the web with comments sections, like buttons, Twitter feeds and Facebook updates framing nearly every digital video screen, offering the audiences’ take on whatever media they’re consuming, all in real time.
When the communication is clearly no longer one-sided, things start to get interesting. If an athlete or celebrity so much as twitches on national television, there are a hundred opinions to go with it. On April 8th, following Bubba Watson’s winning shot at PGA Masters Tour, the internet was rife with adulation, shock, and even a little disdain for the victor before he had a chance to shed his first tear, let alone try on his new green jacket. Today, our stories are instantly more complex and multifaceted, no longer the sole domain of broadcasters and journalists.
A Spot of Fame
Interesting to be sure, but nothing new. Audience chatter has been part of the entertainment ecosystem for years, going as far back as 1982, when computer scientist Scott Fahlman posted the first ever emoticon on Carnegie Mellon’s primitive message board to distinguish jokes from serious posts. Only in the last year or so has it really settled and matured, becoming an expected component of the media consumption experience rather than a novelty. The question on everyone’s mind, especially in Silicon Valley and Hollywood, is where do we go from here? How will Social Television evolve?
Enter Youtoo. They’re attempting to redefine the storytelling process used by mass media outlets through streamlining the way audiences interact with them. The company wears several hats. Youtoo is a broadcast television channel, a social network, a mobile device application, and a high-tech publicist. They’re aiming to put ordinary people on TV right alongside their favorite shows, chipping away at the very institution of television as a one-way medium. Their approach is twofold.
First, they are banking on people’s psychological penchant towards fame and self-promotion by giving viewers their 15 minutes in the spotlight on broadcast television. There’s the “Fame Spot”, wherein you can upload a video of yourself offering your two cents on an upcoming or currently airing Yootoo program, then watch it live on your living room TV moments later. It’s not limited to the shows. Still in their Beta version, Youtoo reaches out to their viewers with hypothetical questions, to get their opinions, and to just let them wax poetic. A post by teenage girl HeyDelilah1685568 about her ideal wedding location has been broadcast over 50 times. They’re slowly building up the comfort level for viewers with the technology, one upload at a time.
The other prong is the “Peoplemercial”, a DIY commercial viewers can upload to promote their business, a product, or any particular cause you might be championing, free for a limited time only. Another teen queen, cKenzi, is using Peoplemercials to promote her music by giving us a sample. When they get out of Beta mode, Youtoo will charge a small fee for the self-promotion tool. They’ve partnered with companies like Helzberg Diamonds, who are experimenting with Peoplemercials by sponsoring televised marriage proposals. What do the young lovers get out of it? Fame, of course. This month Helzberg is rolling out a Mother’s Day campaign in which viewers will be able to give mom a shout out. The big question is whether Youtoo’s big bet on fame as a motivator for putting ourselves on TV will pay off.
Not Your Father’s Network
So far, the good money is on them. In the company’s seven month history, the number of times people have been on TV through their services numbers in the tens of thousands. The age of instantaneous video upload from mobile devices to social networks begs the question though: is getting a few minutes on national television just a fad?
Youtoo’s answer is no, citing the old industry adage that “Content is King.” While social networks have been playing television networks and movie studios this past year – most notably Facebook announcing it would begin streaming Warner Bros.’ The Dark Knight for a fee and Youtube offering HD movie rentals – Youtoo’s strength is that first and foremost, it’s a television network. They are in the business of programming their schedule with quality shows just like every other network, and as we learned from TMC with hits such as Mad Men and Breaking Bad, to be put on the map all you need is one. While consumers may be able to use digital video sites to learn guitar, watch the world’s cutest dog in action, or even a hit movie, there’s nothing like original quality programming to attract real attention and fill the coffers.
Curating those shows is an uphill battle. Youtoo is working to distance itself from American Life Network (ALN), which it has rebranded itself from in September 2011 in anticipation of its new focus on Social TV. There are several holdover shows they must service and fill their slate with such as the original Batman and Robin television series and The X-Files. Not to knock Adam West, Mulder, or Scully, but those shows have a limited audience. Still, Youtoo reaches 15 million viewers, nothing to balk at.
The company’s proprietary technology integrates best with unscripted programming, as game shows or sporting events lend themselves well to commentators and participants alike. You don’t have to look farther than reality behemoths such as The Voice, American Idol, Dancing With the Stars, or Survivor to see the way viewers interact with the cast through social media. Scripted fare is a harder nut to crack. In an interview following the launch of Youtoo, CEO Chris Wyatt said they’re giving television producers a lot of leeway in coming up with creative solutions to that problem, a surprisingly novel approach that would perhaps well serve traditional big network executives, continually criticized for developing good shows into the ground.
The Midas Touch
A player in Youtoo’s effort to socialize scripted entertainment is KoldCast Entertainment Media, a leader in independent television. In addition to their core business, KoldCast TV, which streams original television productions online, they produce KoldCast Presents, a half-hour hosted showcase show. Hosted by the vivacious Stuart Brazell, the show features three to four episodes of short-form content, allowing viewers to chime in with their anticipations, reactions, and thoughts, creating a nationally syndicated dialogue around the content.
Where things get really cool is what happens when the feedback reaches producers. It’s the movie theater exit poll on steroids, allowing the filmmakers to change their work accordingly: create new storylines, arch characters differently, or come up with a new show altogether based on audience demand. This feedback loop is the critical component to Social Television’s success in the scripted arena – the empowerment of viewers to take part in the storytelling. They’re not just chiming in around the campfire anymore. They’re getting up and adding a new chapter to the tale.
It’s a big idea that has attracted investors such as reality TV pioneer Mark Burnett. When asked about his involvement by The Hollywood Reporter, he said “As a TV producer, I love nothing more than finding the next big thing. When I put Survivor on television, no one, including me, knew how popular reality television would become,” Burnett, who also produced The Apprentice and The Voice, said “Now, Youtoo is paving the way for social TV, which is the next generation of television.” Burnett is known for having the Midas touch and Tinseltown pays close attention to his business decisions.
Youtoo isn’t putting all its eggs in one basket. Recognizing the competitive edge that older, more established networks possess, they’re also licensing their propriety technology to other networks seeking to emulate their model – the technology that allows ordinary folks to get on broadcast television in a matter of minutes, in great quality. Squeezing your opinion of Jess’s new polka-dot dress into an episode of The New Girl is more complicated than just uploading a webcam video to Fox’s Facebook page and hoping they love yours most of all. With the sheer volume of uploads, the problem of how to sift through them all comes into play. Aside from the human element, regulatory checks are also built into the software, preventing the foul-mouthed or sparsely dressed from sneaking onto television.
A Front Row Seat to a Backstage Experience
Youtoo’s process has already shown success in other Social TV ventures on a smaller scale. The webseries Epic Rap Battles of History features historical, fictional, and pop culture figures dueling it out 8-Mile style over a CGI backdrop. Primarily distributed on Youtube, the show’s producers create new shows based on user comments from existing episodes. One comment, “Michael Jackson vs Elvis Presley ! PLEASE !” was given several thousand thumbs up, and three months later the King of Rock n’ Roll was dissing the King of Rock of Pop: “This is the big time Jacko, no dress rehearsal. I’ll light you up like your hair in a Pepsi commercial.” Another Youtube show, Prank vs. Prank features a rather sadistic couple that takes turns surprising one another with cruel practical jokes. To get your dose of personal schadenfreud, just request a prank by leaving a comment. Viewers delighted – over 5 million of them – when Jesse caught Jeanna in bed with another man who turned out to be made of Styrofoam.
Naturally, a crop of new media startups has sprouted up to pose their own answers to the question of how Social TV will evolve. Los Angeles-based StageIt provides musicians with an online platform for playing live shows to audience members watching at home all over the world. Their slogan, “A front row seat to a backstage experience” might as well be the slogan for Social TV as a whole. Tickets are sold in advance, and the size of the virtual venue is capped just like a live show, but ranges from an intimate “unplugged” evening to a stadium blowout, depending on the artist and intended concert experience. The performances are not recorded, aiming to recreate – but not replace – the live concert experience. All very impressive, but the real game-changer is the social component: the ability to interact with the performer(s) during the show via a live feed or twitter stream.
Big names in music such as Jimmy Buffett have signed on board as minority investors, and the company has partnered with major Hollywood talent agency International Creative Management (ICM). ICM’s Brett Pacis, a global branding agent, noted the evolving social media landscape. “The music and entertainment industries are extremely motivated by all the ‘likes’ and attention their content was getting on Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks. StageIt provides a vehicle for this social behavior to actually monetize live events.” Pacis also pointed out how the technology is actually changing the culture of entertainment consumption. “Not only can you watch a live concert in your underwear, but you can personally request songs, too.” And music is only the beginning. The model works for comedy, sports – any live event for that matter.” Seems like the race is on for providing viewers with the optimum social media experience.
Social Television has actually been around since the early 2000s but never got its footing due to technology constraints and lack of interest. Remember WebTV? User interfaces were cumbersome and the wireless keyboards that controlled them felt unnatural to use while watching television. Things have changed drastically over the last decade. With the advent of social networking, people are already sharing information about what they watch, while they watch it, even if their online behavior isn’t fully integrated into the content’s interface yet. A Neilson survey revealed that 86% of Americans use their smartphones while watching television. In 2010, the MIT Technology Review named Social TV one of the ten most important emerging technologies, highlighting its effect on the advertising industry and relationship between content creators and content consumers. One company highlighted in their issue on “Decoding Social Media” was Bluefin Labs, a social media analytics firm that tracks comments on shows and advertisements to discern commenters’ interests and demographics. The data, of course, is then sold to advertising agencies.
Later this year should prove to be a major turning point in the continuing Social Television saga, when Internet-equipped “Smart TV” sets hit the consumer market at more affordable prices. These platforms were unequivocally the highlight of the 2012 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES), held January 10-12 in Las Vegas, with brands like Samsung and LG making a major splash with their displays. One feature in Smart TVs straight out of The Jetsons is a front-facing camera that recognizes and interacts with the viewer, pulling up your personalized programming and social networks just by you plopping on the couch.
Conspicuously missing from the convention was Apple, famously secretive about their new products and certain to be developing a Smart TV of their own. Apple was arguably ahead of its time in 2006, when it unveiled the Apple TV set top box, which offered on-demand content paid for per download. It was initially a small failure due to the late Steve Jobs’ inability to reach distribution deals with major networks and studios.
In the current state of the industry, when watching television evokes a headphone-clad teen staring into their laptop, the Smart TV coming to a living room near you may prove lone viewing to be a transient blip in the radar. Television started as a social phenomenon, bringing families and friends together during evenings to be entertained and informed by the soft glow of the small screen. Only in the last few years have advancements like powerful mobile devices, on-demand entertainment, ubiquitous Wi-Fi hotspots, and not to mention massively pirated content, made watching TV a dominant solitary activity.
Social TV promises a new generation of viewers will once again gather to watch and talk about their favorite shows. They may not be in the same room, or even the same country for that matter, but they’ll definitely be talking, and those conversations are going to be listened to very, very closely. All that chatter will foster more relevant media – more informed media – that will keep them coming back for more.
Ariel Nishli is the Editor-in-Chief of The Sixth Wall. He’s got a big apple in his heart but moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in the entertainment industry. After graduating from Vanderbilt University in 2007, he worked in the motion picture literary department at ICM, then moved on to feature film development at Parkes MacDonald Productions. Ariel’s wardrobe has steadily devolved from designer suits to worn out slippers, as he now focuses on screenwriting and journalism when he’s not obsessing over this blog.