Will TV Become More Interactive?

I’ve heard bold predictions about the future of television. Some say that traditional cable companies like Comcast and Time Warner Cable will be overtaken by internetbased streaming services like Hulu and Netflix. Or that the major content creators like Disney and Time Warner Inc. will soon be beholden to the big technology players like Google and Apple.

I don’t think this is going to happen for a number of reasons, including the economics of the industry (which protect the status quo) and the inherent differences between creating technology and creating content. I do, however, think that five years from now, television will have more interactive content than it does today. Here’s why.

The act of social sharing on Facebook and Twitter while watching television is growing rapidly. Largescale broadcast events, like the presidential debates, the Grammy Awards or new episodes of The Voice are always accompanied by a massive surge in tweets published per minute. Just before the end of this year’s Super Bowl, for example, viewers published an astonishing 10,000 Twitter postings per second.

According to research firm Bluefi n Labs, when the news networks called the election for President Obama at around 11:18 p.m. (ET) on Election Day, there was an enormous spike in social TV commentary of 261,026 comments per minute. This year’s presidential election was the No. 1 social TV event of all time; No. 2 was the Oct. 16 presidential debate. Bluefin also found that the number of television-related social media posts on Twitter and other outlets has risen sharply in the past year, to 75.5 million in July from 8.8 million a year earlier.

It’s true that TV shows are encouraging viewers to engage in online conversations. But more often than not, viewers reach for their second screens without prompting. They crave that additive experience. They want to read what their peers are thinking and feeling about the same topic, and they want second-screen content and interaction from the talent as well. They want to break down the fourth wall.

Furthermore, TV networks are “closing the loop” by bringing some of that social content onto the television screen. A few examples of this are the hashtag game from NBC’s Late Night With Jimmy Fallon; AMC’s The Talking Dead post-show panel, which discusses that night’s episode; and MTV’s Twitter Tracker for the 2012 Video Music Awards. When Tweets are incorporated into a live show, the viewers benefit from true interactivity — where they have a chance to affect the content in real time. This is where interactivity really gets exciting.

The next wave of interactive content will allow the audience to participate beyond tweeting and Facebooking. This includes content where the viewers can get face-toface with the talent. Key players like Viacom and Time Warner Inc. are launching next-wave interactive television events where an audience can participate and interact with talent as part of the content.

On our platform, for example, ExtraTV is doing a package of content around The X Factor, where viewers can watch the episode live, then tune into a spreecast featuring celebrity guests and contestants from the program, and get a chance to meet the talent face-to-face online. The social media potential for events like these is enormous, but more importantly, the personal connection for a fan is a cut above what that fan can get on Twitter.

The trend towards this type of interactivity is clearly happening. And we are going to see more of it over the next five years. I’m not suggesting that all television content will be interactive in this time frame, or ever. There will always be a place for great drama and content that allows viewers to sit back and relax, but there is also clearly a place for more engagement.

Will TV change dramatically in the next five years? Probably not. The big media companies will be the same five or six companies. And the content will have many of the same flavors: News, sports, entertainment, drama, reality, talk, and children’s content.

But five years from now, we’re going to see more content that is created from the outset with an interactive component at its core.

Interactivity increases engagement. This is good for the shows, the networks, the advertisers and the audience. Everyone wins.

Jeff Fluhr is CEO of Spreecast, a San Franciscobased social broadcasting platform.