By Fred Dawson
August 12, 2013 – Fan participation in storytelling apps tied to popular TV programs and movies is rapidly becoming a force to be reckoned with in networks’ efforts to build and sustain audiences, possibly creating another opportunity for pay TV providers to add value to the next-generation viewing experience.
Much as centralizing content discovery across all outlets, including over-the-top, has become a way service providers can strengthen the appeal of subscription services, providing a place to go for subscribers to participate in storytelling and other advanced forms of social engagement could help operators develop a user-friendly environment that resonates with young viewers. Possibilities along these lines came up during a discussion at the recent tvXperience conference in New York, where the use of social media to expand engagement in programming was a key opening day topic.
“Users aren’t going to put eight to ten [TV program-specific] apps on their phones,” said Rick Liebling, creative culturalist at Young &Rubicon. “There’s an opportunity to centralize these experiences for MVPDs (multichannel video programming distributors) and, in some categories, for brands as well.”
Voicing agreement, Bob Knorpp, chief analyst for BrandWatch, a service for marketing professionals, noted the success YouTube has had in leveraging socialization to increase engagement with its many thousands of channels. “YouTube is a social network, not just a place to put content,” Knorpp said. “It’s a place to build out SCO (supply chain optimization) and SCM (supply chain management) strategies because of its close ties to Google Plus and search.”
A socialization environment built around the programming available over cable and broadcast TV networks to support multiple new engagement strategies would go well beyond merely duplicating existing social environments. So far, the socialization emphasis among pay TV providers has been simply to bring things like Facebook and YouTube into the TV space.
Aggregation along these lines is up for grabs, noted Aaron Williams, CEO & co-founder of SocialSamba, which has made waves providing story-telling apps in conjunction with TV series and movies, including USA Network’s Covert Affairs, Psych and Suits, MTV’s Teen Wolf and the Warner Bros./Alcon Entertainment films Dolphin Tale and Joyful Noise. “zeebox is going in interesting directions along these lines,” Williams said. “It could mount a challenge to established players.”
U.K.-based zeebox, a second-screen app developer, just launched the beta version of what it calls “TV Rooms,” which are communities for TV fans to share experiences with fellow fans in virtual rooms they create or join that are specific to shows, characters and themes. While billed as largely user-driven, TV Rooms can be created by networks as well, as evidenced by Bravo Media’s creation of a Real Housewives of Orange County zeebox TV Room. The Bravo app kicked off with live interaction between fans and several current and former actors in celebration of the show’s 100th episode.
“The number-one request from consumers has been to further personalize their zeebox experience,” said Jason Forbes, executive vice president for the U.S. at zeebox. “The launch of TV Rooms gives anyone the ability to join and build a range of different communities centered around one or a set of TV shows – a place where they can call the shots, share ideas, conversations and organize affinity groups based on what’s important to them.”
Also available in each TV Room is a program schedule featuring shows that are tied to the show or theme of that room. For example, in the 6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon TV Room, the populated shows list may tell users what’s coming up on Fox in the next hour as well as any upcoming Kevin Bacon movies. Live, contextual “zeetags” also can be applied with characters, products and other pertinent information appearing in the show, giving viewers an immediate link to learn more and drive topical discussions, Forbes said.
At launch, the app, initially available on Apple iOS devices with Android devices on tap, featured more than 4,000 TV Rooms across shows within the two-week viewing schedule, as well as 60 themed TV Rooms ranging from “Reality TV Time” to “Late Night Show Breakdown.” The Top 50 Rooms will be highlighted every week and ranked based on activity (likes, comments, shares) and members currently joining.
The zeebox strategy hints at what can be accomplished by service providers and other content aggregators who want to exploit the gamification phenomenon. SocialSamba, for example, represents a farther stage of social evolution that could significantly add to the appeal to any social playgrounds network operators might develop for their brands.
“We’re providing a fan fiction platform,” Williams said. “Our technology allows fans to come in and create stories and to participate in activities that are part of the programming. It gives content owners the means to uniquely entertain their audiences, let them know they’re valuable not just as viewers but as contributors and to give them a chance to shine within their communities.”
Content owners are applying the SocialSamba software in a variety of ways. For example, in the Joyful Noise app, fans audition to be in the film’s choir.
Early successes have prompted USA Network to be especially aggressive in this space. In the #HashTagKiller app developed for Psych, video clips featuring show stars are combined with clues and messages between the series leads to give fans the sense of being in the program as they try to track down the killer and solve the case.
In TeenWolf:The Hunt users become characters who work in the principal’s office of the school that Teen Wolf, the lead character, attends, and, using video chats and messaging with the show leads, take part in a series of tasks and challenges that result in an entirely original plot line. In Suits Recruits, based on the series about a law office, participants as new recruits in the law office interact with a pre-written story line thatparallels the regular series.
This year USA has added another fan participation venue, PSYCH The S#cial Sector, an eight-week multiplatform murder mystery that engages people in an online reality competition. Players interact with series stars as digital assistants, helping to solve the case through real-time communications and an interactive Fan Theory Board where fans can post video responses to weekly challenges.
Such efforts are working for show producers, drawing hundreds of thousands of fans to take part in extended versions of the shows whenever they want with a sense of creative engagement in the outcomes. Williams pointed to other efforts along these lines as indications that the trend is real, extending beyond the work that SocialSamba is doing.
One example is StarwarsUncut.com, which is a website that allows fans to create an entirely new version of the film episodes, starting with Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. The film was chopped into 15-second segments, allowing participants to combine their own creations with the original material to develop enhancements to the original story. With all segments now released and fully engaged, the website has posted a full-length “director’s cut” featuring the best of the contributions woven together.
“Fans created Claymation cartoons, dressed up and filmed themselves in various roles,” Williams said. “It was all streamed together to create a fan version of the movie. Fans love it.”
Another firm about to enter the market with solutions supporting fan-generated content is BuzzTala, a spinoff from Web news startup Zazoom. According to Zazoom COO Steve Bradbury, the new company arose out of Zazoom’s research into whether people would be interested in generating video responses to the news clips produced by Zazoom.
“We were inquiring for ourselves, and we ended up realizing there’s a general need for engagement that goes beyond what used to be considered lean forward but really is pretty passive social engagement – 140 characters, tweet, click, share with a friend,” Bradbury said. “So we started incubating a company that has developed a video engagement platform that has a lot of play in e-commerce.”
The idea is to provide an easy-to-use environment where a supplier of consumer products, whether entertainment or other goods and services, can generate user participation in responses to branded source videos, he says. “It really integrates in an interesting way so you can create an environment for people to communicate about what they’ve watched,” he says
All these developments point up the importance of getting beyond merely viral promotion to create fan engagement, Knorpp said. “It’s the difference between something that’s viral and something that becomes a meme,” he noted. “You can buy viral, but at a certain point it peaks out, because you’re asking someone to participate in your agenda. You want to inspire fans to come out and be creative, inspire them to create their own versions of content, not tell them, but inspire them.”
Scripted horror is another example of the phenomenon, he added. “There are whole sites devoted to vampire culture,” he said. “People can tap in without feeling like they’re being a shill for your product. People want to do their own thing, so you have to start valuing the individual’s brand.”
Social spaces allowing users to tap into whatever activities are going on in this vein across the service provider’s portfolio of channels and on-demand content could go a long way toward making pay TV a millennial-friendly environment. “You can improve discoverability by centralizing navigation in one place,” Knorpp said. “The same principle applies here.”