Social TV is great, BUT…

I spent a fascinating morning at the Social TV Summit, where an impressive gathering of digital-minded folks from networks and studios convened for panel discussions delving into the intricacies of this emerging category. SocialTVSummit_V8-md

For those that don’t know, “social TV” is a catch-all term for digital content experiences that supplement and drive greater engagement with the TV programs it was feared they would once cannibalize. Examples range from “second screen” applications that offer companion content to what’s on air to social-media tools that harness the conversation about shows already going on via Facebook or Twitter.

There was a vaguely self-congratulatory tone to the whole day, and why not given the heady $40-50 billion one of the event’s organizers, analyst Jack Myers, projected for social-marketing spending by 2020. As the myriad ways TV could be transformed were discussed, a recurring theme was how inherently social TV is.

But I’m not so sure about that.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve had some great social TV experiences, particularly on Twitter to partake in watercooler moments from the Super Bowl to the breaking news of Osama bin Laden’s assassination. And I’ve also had some truly horrible social-TV experiences though I won’t name names–names that were cited today as shining examples–only because to me essentially this entire category is in beta.

But even once social-TV has perfected its technology, I think there’s one fundamental attribute to the medium standing in the way that was totally overlooked at the conference: TV isn’t so much social as it is passive. And I can’t help but wonder whether that will remain the dominant mode for TV consumption until the end of time.

Exciting as all the “lean-forward” opportunities are, I have the nagging suspicion that they will apply to only a sub-segment of the overall viewing population, as well as a sub-segment of the many different kinds of TV programming out there.

Television was more or less discussed at the Social TV Summit in monolithic terms that didn’t distinguish between the very varied experiences the medium has to offer. Being engrossed in a character-driven drama series, for example, is entirely different than watching a sporting event, and my guess is the latter is far more conducive to at least synchronous social-TV applications. The conference smartly pointed out a number of times that there’s going to be different kinds of social experiences when a program is on and off.

At one point early in the day there was a telling exchange between Somrat Niyogi, CEO of check-in app Miso, and Adam Cahan, VP of Yahoo Media products, in which Niyogi conceded, “I don’t think people want to share every single thing that they want to watch,” drawing laughs as he held out the hypothetical of a “Jersey Shore” fan who may not want the world to know he or she enjoys the show. But Cahan countered, “People are going to share a lot more than they do today,” noting that a similar cultural shift has already been put into motion by Facebook, whose members share the minutiae of their lives in a way they would have thought twice about a few years ago.

The truth is they’re both right. There’s going to be people who don’t want to make their TV consumption habits public and others who will do so without blinking. But the sensitivity here may not be so much around privacy as it is taking a pursuit that for most people is not about expending any effort. There’s a reason kicking back in front of the boob tube is called “vegging out.”

This isn’t meant to dampen enthusiasm for social TV as much as it a call for some perspective. I’m rooting for this sector and excited to watch its progress. But I’m also leery that expectations are a wee out of whack with the realities of the TV audience.

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