Olympics, election emerge as battlegrounds

Don’t look now, Twitter, but Facebook is treading on your TV territory.

A pair of separate partnerships announced in recent days by the newly public social-media behemoth make clear Facebook is stepping up its game in the emerging social-TV space — and invading the precious real estate Twitter has aggressively staked out in the lower-third of the TV screen.

Facebook and NBCUniversal disclosed Tuesday plans for a broad cross-platform integration tied to the Olympics that will sprinkle branded content across their respective TV and Web properties. The collaboration came days after a similar tie-up between Facebook and CNN timed to the news network’s coverage of the presidential election.

These joint efforts mark a shift in strategy for Facebook, which has suddenly become more active in striking media partnerships than in past years. Mark Zuckerberg’s company always seemed to take a passive approach with even the biggest entertainment brands, which put down roots on Facebook’s massive platform unilaterally via open APIs.

As for social TV — the still inchoate business of coordinating viewers’ conversation regarding TV programming on laptops, phones and tablets — Facebook had largely ceded that ground to the smaller but nimbler Twitter, which has been aggressive about getting its brand on TV with ubiquitous hashtags via outreach to networks from Fox to Comedy Central.

While Facebook and Twitter are plenty capable of harnessing TV-related chatter on their own, on-air integration is the holy grail of social TV. And both sports and news finished high on a March survey from research firm Informa Telecom & Media with regard to what kind of programming translates best to the second screen — good news for broadcasters looking to reinforce the value of the live programming, where they make the most ad revenue amid the proliferation of on-demand programming options.

In addition to various Olympics-themed content extras that will be available on Facebook and NBCOlympics.com, the partnership will also yield unprecedented airtime for the social network. Facebook is sending a production team to London that will mine digital discussions pertaining to the Olympics for a “talk meter,” which will provide an on-air window to what viewers are saying about the Games, and other segments including a polling feature.

For its part, CNN will leverage the analytics Facebook has typically closed off to third parties — in stark contrast to Twitter — in order to provide insights on electorate reactions to the presidential race that can be gleaned for on-air nuggets.

While social data seems to be used here to spice up TV content, their true value has the potential to be unlocked internally by TV networks who can get a far more sophisticated sense of exactly how viewers are engaging with them than Nielsen numbers currently offer.

“There is an incremental currency being established here: engagement metrics around TV,” said Mark Ghuneim, CEO of social-media analytics firm Trendrr. “It’s an important one because brands want to be where the engagement is.”

The deals that Facebook and Twitter make with TV networks have been characterized to date as largely cross-promotional, but in addition to the data possibilities, opportunities for additional advertising revenues may enter the picture in the not too-distant future.

But with its newfound eagerness to strike partnerships, Facebook may be angling to reclaim a marketplace in which its sheer size would afford it a natural advantage. Or the election and the Olympics may simply represent exceptions to Facebook’s otherwise continuining disinterest in social TV, uncommon opportunities to experiment on TV programming with scale worthy of its own size.

Regardless, Twitter may have to fight off Facebook to hold onto its first-mover advantage, or at least find a way to coexist with Facebook. Indeed, Twitter is expected to announce an Olympics-related social-TV integration of its own with NBCU, though neither company would comment on speculation. Facebook did not respond to request for comment either.

The Olympics is a no-brainer for Twitter, which has made sports programming a specialty. The service has been experimenting with new formats at recent NASCAR and Euro Cup events.

The renewed focus on social TV at Facebook is also a reflection of execs that were tasked with this area of responsibility last year.

Kay Madati and Andy Mitchell — both alums of CNN — are leading the charge, which may explain why the Atlanta-based news network ended up as one of Facebook’s first partners.

On the Twitter side, the company’s media division hired Fred Graver, a writer-producer with tech experience at MTV and Disney, to lead its TV outreach just last month.

It will be interesting to see how Twitter and Facebook are presented in the overall NBCU multimedia mix that is Olympics coverage. Perhaps they will simply take turns on air with clearly differentiated offerings, or one will get preferential positioning. Maybe the future of social-TV tie-ins will have room for only one sheriff per town, and exclusivity will be a pre-condition to participation. There could be still other social-TV brands — like GetGlue and Yahoo’s IntoNow — that will want a piece of the pie.

NBCU could take its cues from another social-TV venture launched earlier this week by NBC News. The new “Dateline” Chatline app weaves together relevant chatter from several platforms into one venue, albeit not on TV.

Aggressive as Facebook’s latest moves are when contrasted with its previous passivity, leaning harder into social TV represents a fraction of the potential this juggernaut is widely acknowledged to have should it want to shake up the media business. Though Zuckerberg and other Facebook execs have made ambitious statements about reorienting the entire industry around social, the measures that have been actually taken that affect content companies have largely been small bore, like enabling its social graph to let subscribers automatically signal in their timelines what content they’re consuming to friends.

But Facebook has anticipated becoming a platform for video consumption itself, whether through the virtual currency that turned casual gaming into a huge business or in an ad model that could see the company take a cut every time a sub clicks the “Like” button on a program. However, Facebook has yet to take an active role in any of the occasional film distribution forays, whether indie VOD releases through third-party specialist Milyoni or catalog offerings directly from the studios, as Warner Bros. and Paramount have tried.

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