It’s Your Viewer Sitting At Your Right Hand

It's Your Viewer Sitting At Your Right Hand

How will social media affect the way that we make and watch programmes in the future? This week Moray caresses his crystal ball to find out.

“Social media” is the hackneyed phrase of our time, attached to any venture which could involve a minimum of two people and a computer. The phrase seems as likely to refer to the rejig of a coffee-shop’s opening hours as to a new version of Facebook. It’s the kiss of death to any executive proposal if “social media” isn’t incorporated somewhere in the first line. It’s a compelling bandwagon, and I’m as liable as anyone to be geed-up by the Socialnomics viral that took marketing execs by storm last month.

But just because the ‘social media’ phrase is as indistinct as New labour’s ‘Third Way’, doesn’t mean that social media isn’t going to affect the way you work too. You might think that telly is a social medium already, but here’s my latest crystal ball reading on what Social Media will mean for television production. In short, we’re all going to be at it soon.

Research done last year by Simply Media looked at how people were using online video already. It saw users looking briefly at ‘Snippets’ of video, or sitting back comfortably to watch long-form ‘Catch-up’ programmes on iPlayer or 4OD, but crucially it also identified what it called ‘Boutique’ viewing, of video up to about 5 minutes’ duration where the user really concentrates on the film in hand, without browsing elsewhere, and is ready to interact with it. This is the sweet-spot for future television programmes, to fascinate the viewer so completely that they want to do something about what they are watching there and then. They might want to talk about it, act on it, contribute to it, or invite in the salesmen.

The core of a social medium is that the users, your audience, react to each other, creating something much bigger than you can offer them on your own. Ebay would be nothing other than a neat website if people didn’t buy and sell from each other on it in their droves. Soon television programme formats will be altering to harness this extra power. And then they will get more involvement than even the X Factor can muster on its own.

I’m sure you know that millions of people worldwide already play group games with each other in real time online with X-Box Live and PlayStation Home. Imagine watching TV but choosing to be part of a bigger live viewing community, and then being able to see what your friends, or maybe people you are interested in, are watching. Then perhaps you might want to message them, or share a bit of music sitting on your computer or theirs, or another server somewhere; or you might find out more about the programme-makers as you are watching the screen? In short, it will help you to hang out with like-minded people, and get involved with the things you care about.

Every time I try a bit of this ‘futurology’ it turns out that it’s happening already somewhere. Boxee is an American pioneer in this area. It still looks pretty clunky to me, but you can see where it’s going to go. And as viewers, we’ll like it when Boxee or one of its successors gets there.

What does this mean for the kind of programmes that we will make? I think that audiences will be smaller for individual programmes, but that won’t matter because those smaller audiences will care more about what they watch, and will do something about it. Programme-making will be designed to invite more participation by viewers, and you will find the production process far more exciting and fascinating as a result. You will be effectively in dialogue with your audience as well as with your contributors. And if they don’t like what you make, they’re going to tell you so.