Social TV: The Television Will Not be Revolutionised

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When Anthony Rose, the former CTO of both the BBC iPlayer team and YouView, embarked on a full-fledged media assault to pull back the curtain on his latest venture he didn’t exactly hedge his bets.

Zeebox, he told numerous media outlets including, “will be the biggest disruptive thing ever in this space.”

Ahem. Were it not coming from Rose, I might be tempted to dismiss it as the kind of pitch we routinely hear at least once during every Streaming Media conference, usually in hushed tones and always absent any details. But Rose’s CV is practically unassailable; he did, after all, helm the technical development of not only the iPlayer and YouView but also the P2P filesharing app Kazaa.

And Zeebox, formerly called tBone TV, does sound compelling: The platform promises to allow tablets and other mobile devices to communicate  and synchronize with whatever content is on live television. Zeebox apps will respond to whatever is on TV with rich information and links about whatever is being shown or discussed in a show on a second-by-second basis. A newscaster mentions Syria, and you get a slew of information and news about the country; Top Gear reviews the new Audi, and you get reviews, product information, and ads for the vehicle.

The platform will also allow users to connect with their friends to discover content and interact around it. Rose calls it a “huge, vibrant experience,” and one can imagine a world in which it’s every bit as captivating as he describes. Unfortunately, that’s not a world that much resembles reality, now or in the near future.

Rose, who reportedly left YouView when he tired of the slow-moving bureaucracy there—it still hasn’t come to market—and he’s understandably excited by the fast development and time-to-market capabilities of software-only solutions that can be authored one day and available the next.

But his excitement should be tempered by at least a couple of salient points. The first is the simple issue of user adoption. Connected TV sales are indeed growing quickly in Europe, and various analysts are predicting anywhere from 60% to 99% of all TVs in Western Europe will be connected by 2015. I’m inclined to suspect that those predictions are the result of sketchy math—given the current economic situation, one that doesn’t appear likely to turn around significantly in the short term, it’s hard to imagine 99% of households buying new, connected televisions in the next five years.

Even if they do, there’s precious little research that proves that connected TV buyers are actually using those sets to access significant amounts of content online.  But let’s assume for the sake of argument that they do, and that the Zeebox platform is able to get on all of those TVs and every one of those users downloads a Zeebox app to their second screens.

Rose told PaidContent that the Zeebox experience  is “like crack—you just keep wanting stuff, and getting it second-by-second.” That doesn’t change the fundamental nature of the television-watching experience, which viewers want to demand as little of them as possible. Rose knows this, too; he even acknowledges that watching TV is about “vegging,” saying that Zeebox is “Veg 2.0.”

Thing is, most TV viewers don’t want Veg 2.0.  And the ones that do tend to watch programming that’s time-shifted, out of sync from when a particular show is broadcast live and from when their friends might be watching it.  No matter how popular a given show or event might be, television viewing remains an asocial experience, with very few exceptions.

And in those exceptions, whether a key football match or a top-rated series finale, no app is a replacement for Social 1.0: watching together with friends in the living room or down at the pub. That’s how the real revolutions start.

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