Media companies experiment with face-to-face tech in programming

On last Friday’s episode of her daily live Web series “Very VH1 with Kate Spencer,” the host announced she was undertaking an unprecedented experiment: having a conversation with four guests.

“We’re going to try it once and see how it goes,” she warned. “It could be a total disaster or it could be magical.”

Four guests might not seem like a big feat for a typical talkshow, but there’s nothing typical about “Very,” a snarky dissection of pop culture with a healthy dose of VH1 self-promotion. Since launching last week on VH1.com, Spencer has hosted the show via webcam out of her own living room. The guests that appear on screen with her are not in the room with her, beaming in from webcams of their own.

“Very” is at the leading edge of a growing mix of content and promotion that capitalize on social-video platforms. They enable multiple viewers to share screen time with a host they interact with in real time from their own home — or out and about via wireless devices. It’s a technology that straddles a line between program and audience that has been blurring since the advent of call-in radio shows.

While social video can be put to use by any average Joe, media companies are taking an increasing interest in either open services like Google+ Hangout, which is drawing buzz to this nascent space, or more customizable players like Spreecast, Watchitoo, Oovoo and Stickam. Their ability to create a virtual face-to-face has the potential to drive fan engagement in a powerful way.

“The idea of interactive experiences around traditional media content is something I think is going to be a core part of media five years from now,” predicted Jeff Fluhr, CEO of Spreecast, a one-year-old startup whose investors include former Viacom CEO Frank Biondi.

Syndie talkshow hosts including Anderson Cooper, Jeff Probst and Katie Couric have been using social video as an online adjunct to their show where they can interact with fans. Glenn Beck’s online network TheBlaze does a two-hour Blazecast each weekday on Spreecast. Hangout has been used mostly for tubthumping purposes, from Disney having Steven Spielberg chat with fans about his upcoming theatrical “Lincoln” to a powwow with the principals of the A&E unscripted series “Duck Dynasty.”

Social video is a little more complicated than Skype-ing with Oprah, yet pretty simple, too. Viewers can choose to either passively watch a show or add their two cents via a chat mechanism. Watching “Very” is like watching a media Mobius strip, as Spencer shifts the topic she is discussing at a moment’s notice to react to her viewers’ comments seconds after they appear on screen.

But as Spencer’s four-guest dilemma can attest, social video is a low-budget world of poor lighting and technical hiccups aplenty. Of course, that DIY vibe is also part of its charm.

Social video isn’t a new technology; Stickam has been at it since 2007. Just last year, actor-cum-tech-investor Ashton Kutcher would take to the Internet following his appearance on episodes of “Two and a Half Men” to commingle with fans via Tinychat, a social-video platform he was backing.

And even though content companies have periodically experimented with these platforms over the years, social video may only finally be poised for breakthrough now because of other trends that weren’t in place five years ago: the phenomenal growth of social media like Facebook and Twitter and usage of webcams that suffered from pixilation, latency and other bugs related to less-than-pervasive broadband and wireless deployment.

“The technology has been there all along but a couple of key pieces have come together in the right way to make this more practically feasible,” said Dan Sacher, senior VP of digital at VH1 and Logo.

Social video is a good fit with the VH1 brand, which sees tremendous traction for its programming via social media. The network also has a long tradition of putting a twist on so-called “talking head” shows that make a cross-platform migration, including the “Best Week Ever” franchise.

Using Spreecast, VH1 is letting viewers interact with the stars of one of its hit reality shows on “Love & Hip Hop Atlanta Face-to-Face Aftershow.” Sister network Logo is taking social video down a more substantive path with “NewNowNext Vote Sound Off With Sandra Bernhard.” The recent political conventions saw ample use of the technology from newspapers with pundits looking to mix it up. Record labels and book publishers are flacking their latest releases with it, too.

Social video is really a subset of a broader market of video-based communications, whether of the one-to-one variety like Apple’s Facetime or group-video-chat services like Zoom.us, which isn’t to be confused with social video networking apps coming from myriad upstarts like Viddy, Telly and Socialcam. The taxonomy between all of these groupings may blur, but think of the Hangout/Spreecast/Oovoo variety as a one-to-many application.

The category is not without taint, as there have been numerous reports of users’ taking advantage of their ability to broadcast themselves engaging in lewd or criminal acts on the more unregulated corners of the Internet, like the notorious Chatroulette; there’s even the potential of social video being used as a vehicle for transmitting pirated content. That makes a service that puts the programmer firmly at the controls like Spreecast all the more valuable, allowing a user to appear on screen to talk with the host only if the programmer chooses to put them on screen.While all interested parties speak of traffic trajectories, actual metrics are hard to come by and no one is claiming Facebook-like growth curves just yet.

At this early stage, monetization is also barely in the picture given the point is to create no barriers to entry for consumers. But in time, sponsorships or subscriptions can be easily integrated.

Social video can also be understood as the intersection of logical extensions to more trends than social media and webcams. Reality TV has bred the notion that everyone can be a star. YouTube and a gaggle of other sites have schooled a generation of Web users on the intricacies of uploading video, even live streaming. The Internet itself has made interactivity itself a more intuitive part of any media experience.

But the trend that may matter most to the future of social video may be the television set itself. With more and more “smart” sets coming to market with Internet connectivity and other sophisticated tools, the time may not be long off when the social-video experience can truly go primetime in the living room.

As to whether social video can evolve into a programming format in its own right or remain just a promotional vehicle, only time will tell whether talkshow hosts in the future won’t be complete without virtual sidekicks. Maybe other genres will figure out how to adopt it, too.

But Sacher sees the technology less as something radically new than a return to narrative storytelling in its most primitive form.

“Think of how stories were told before traditional media,” he said. “You sat around a fire with a storyteller, and there was a give-and-take among all involved. What we’re really tapping into here is the way storytelling was done years and years ago.”

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