Shattering the fourth wall

I recently wrote about social and participative TV, as one of the important aspects of how TV as we currently know it will evolve.

Of course, this is not to say that all TV will become social. A key characteristic of the TV format is that it is passive, and that is what many people are looking for. Part of what we need to learn is not just what the mechanisms of effective social TV are, but in what situations it works well. While the term ‘social TV’ is becoming commonly used to refer to a variety of initiatives, I distinguish between social TV as focused on a shared viewing experience, and participative TV which is about viewers contributing to the program itself.

In this context, local TV station KOMU in Columbia, Missouri has recently created an hour-long participative TV show hosted by Sarah Hill. Here is the program preview:

TVNewsCheck has a detailed review of this and similar initiatives, saying:

U_News@4, which debuted last week on the University of Missouri-owned NBC affiliate to fill its Oprah void at 4 p.m., pushes viewer participation to new heights. In fact, the show is so interactive that anchor Sarah Hill refers to participating viewers as her “co-hosts.”

The hour-long show includes news and weather, but that’s about as traditional as it gets. On the high-tech set, Hill commands the newscast from a laptop with a second large screen behind her for all to see.

Thanks to tools like “hangouts,” multi-person video chats that are part of Google+, as well as other social media that already seem old hat — Tweets, email and texting — viewers are integral parts of the newscast, providing everything from viewpoints to videos, says Executive News Director Stacey Woelfel.

At any given moment, up to 10 individuals may “appear” on air with Hill through the various media, Woelfel says. Last night, Hill reported on Obama’s proposed tax plan, after which the people in her hangout chimed in on the issue.

Hill also checks in regularly with the “social media desk,” which includes two reporters tracking bloggers, Tweets and online conversations about topics making the news.

The TVNewsCheck article goes on to look at how WSLS in Roanoke, Virginia recently replaced a 7pm newscast that drew heavily on social media with a more traditional format, while KTVK in Phoenix, Arizona has launched a 10pm news program that uses social media extensively. Amy Wood, the 10pm news anchor at WSPA in Spartanburg, South Carolina, uses a live chat room to get viewer comments which she feeds back on air.

Clearly these kinds of participatory programs are far more achievable in local TV than national TV. Yet the experiments are broadening in scope and many lessons are being learned along the way.

One is that only particular program types are suited to participatory TV. These include news, but likely not at prime-time. The most specific the audience or the topic, the more likely there will be interest in participating and in seeing the contributions of other guests.

I do think that social TV needs to go beyond trawling through Twitter feeds for comments – that is not the best use of the medium. It really needs to be about getting the audience involved in shaping the program.

There is far more to try, and to learn. Let’s see what the next phase of social TV offers.

Ross Dawson is globally recognised as a leading futurist, entrepreneur, keynote speaker, strategy advisor, and author. His Trends in the Living Networks blog is ranked as one of the top business blogs in the world.

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