Social TV and the Soap Opera

May 09, 2013

Social TV is making headlines as broadcasters endeavor to monetize their audiences whose attention is now spread simultaneously across multiple platforms. It is now common knowledge that most TV viewers, while watching their favorite shows, are actively engaged in social media conversations about the shows. Broadcasters have largely seen this phenomenon as an opportunity to grow the audience of their TV programs and accompanying websites, thereby increasing the value of those properties. However many broadcasters have been seeking ways to harness their social media audiences to create new incremental revenue streams. This may sound futuristic but, in many ways, the emerging business model actually harkens back to the earliest days of broadcast media.

In the early days of broadcast media it is well known that radio and TV stations monetized their audiences through close partnerships with soap companies like Procter & Gamble and Colgate-Palmolive in which the commercial partners sponsored or even produced scripted content which came to be known as "Soap Operas". Ultimately this model was replaced by the commercial advertisement which proved to be much more effective for the sponsoring partners. The 30-second commercial advertising spot on TV is still viewed by many in the industry to be the most effective mass-marketing format in existence.

Unfortunately the format is not easily repurposed for monetizing the real-time conversations that occur among TV audiences during live broadcasts. Simply inserting the ad into a Twitter stream would likely be viewed as distracting or worse. It would be akin to walking into a Super Bowl party wearing a billboard for one of the advertisers running spots during the game broadcast. A better strategy would be to be the coolest guy at the party - perhaps the most knowledgeable about the game, teams, coaches or players - who happens to work for one of the advertisers. This indeed appears to be the direction in which the industry is headed.

The first move in this direction came around this time last year when ESPN partnered with Twitter to create the "GameFace" campaign that ran during ABC's live broadcast of the NBA Finals. During the campaign, members of the TV audience were invited to upload photos of their "game face" and sponsor names were featured on the Twitter page housing the photo entries. However the real shift towards the sponsorship strategy occurred when Twitter launched its "Cards" technology a few months later. Cards enables users to view rich content, including video, within Tweets.

Ford was the first brand to harness the new technology. During the college football season last year, it sponsored instant replays on Twitter during the games. Since then other major brands have entered the fray including AT&T, which sponsored the replays on Twitter during March Madness this year. Meanwhile more TV networks have been partnering with Twitter to create new sponsorship opportunities. The Weather Channel has announced its search for sponsors for exclusive video it plans to post on Twitter while BBC America has announced that it will be offering similar sponsorships around its scripted TV series. The BBC America opportunities, the first ever to be connected to scripted TV series, will enable sponsors to insert pre-rolls before the video content. Viacom and NBC Universal are rumored to be preparing their entries as well.

Although it is too soon to tell whether this regime of sponsorship will emerge as the definitive model for monetizing social TV, there is no doubt that it has already become a powerful trend in the industry. It still remains to be seen how social TV audiences will respond to this level of commercialization and whether the strategy will be effective for advertisers. Whatever the outcome, it may ultimately turn out that the optimal business model for Social TV, rather than a radically new strategy, is more of a throwback to the earliest days of electronic media.