Simon Ellacott, a Managing Consultant in our Marketing, Sales and Service practice looks at the rapid rise of social and interactive TV. Will this seismic change in television viewing behaviour be a blessing to the nation or a curse to us all?

“Everyone says that social television will be big. I think it’s not going to be big — it’s going to be huge” – Ynon Kreiz, CEO Endemol group

Social TV, connected TV, media convergence, transmedia… a whole new lexicon is emerging to describe possibly the greatest change to our relationship with the television since it first caught us in it’s hypnotic glare. Television has had a profound impact on the lives of humankind so this is a pretty bold statement to make, but we’re talking about the fundamental transformation of the television from one-way transmission to two-way communication. The implications are staggering: the convergence of mass media, digital information and communications could become the dominant design for social interaction of our future. How do I intend to justify such outrageous hyperbole? Well strap yourself in folks because it’s already happening, and it’s happening fast:almost half (45%) of all British viewers already use social media whilst watching TV. It creates a huge increase in the potential for communities to instantly react to real time news and events – from the X-factor performances to public protests. Gil Scott-Heron may have cause to rethink, the Revolution might be televised after all….

Interactivity in television has been a dull affair for a very long time: images are broadcast, you watch them. More recently TV shows have flirted with input from their viewers through the telephone, allowing viewers to provide opinions to presenters (or far more amusingly, to allow a child to press Margaret Thatcher about her plans for surviving a nuclear war). Staying with kid’s TV, Noel Edmonds managed to break new ground in 1976 by using the phone-in format extensively, live on air, from 1976 in the Multi-Coloured Swap Shop. This pretty much represented the apogee of viewer interaction until such audience-centred fayre in the 1980s as The Late, Late Breakfast Show (presenter: Noel Edmonds) and the 1990s where some shows started to actually involve viewers without their prior consent by the use of hidden cameras, live on air. Shows like, um, Noel Edmond’s ‘Noel’s House Party’.

Edmonds’ influence notwithstanding, today you can’t have failed to notice the direction we’re moving and the increase in interaction people have with TV programmes. You’ve been able to text or email shows like BBC Breakfast news for 10 years. You can follow and join the debates of topical TV shows like Question Time through your computer. And you’ve been able to shape the careers of music stars using the internet since Pop Idol way back in 2001.

Right now we are experiencing a huge upturn in the “two screen” model – people who watch TV are also commenting on Facebook or tweeting on Twitter whilst the programme is on. The increasing use of laptops and tablets to watch TV fuels the move towards the “single screen” model where people are able to do all this using a single device. Either way the concept is the same: viewers  communicating and sharing views on programmes together, discussing content and interacting with the show in real time. Internet television guides like Clicker are incorporating social elements to their site, whilst popular sources of internet media likeBBC iPlayer are adding new functionality for chat and social networking. The big players are taking it seriously: Google TV may yet to make the impact originally predicted or totally transform the physical TV sets we buy, but other players are still investing. Social TV start up Zeebox has just been given $15m dollars by BSkyB and we await the launch of Youview in the UK in 2012 – an open, internet connected television platform that will support apps for us to interact with our TVs in new ways.

So it’s happening – but is this a good thing? Here I give my views on why an increase in TV interactivity could be a blessing or a curse:


  • No more lonely nights. Watching TV on your own? (either because you are trapped in a ‘Linton Travel Tavern’, or because the rest of your family won’t watch Terra Nova with you?). You can now join a virtual audience to connect and share your insights and opinions with like-minded people from all over the world.
  • Instant feedback. TV producers have the potential to monitor chat and give their audience more of what they want, presumably increasing programme quality.
  • Joining the debate. Live shows can get input from (and feed back to) large numbers of users like never before – using polls or opinion feeds.


  • Keep it appropriate. There’s a risk that social elements may be shoehorned into TV shows that just don’t need them. Having a stream of user feedback on a beautiful nature documentary might be very informative, but I need to be able to turn it off if I just want to lose myself in the programme. Admittedly, the “two screen” model of social TV is always going to let me do this. 
  • Content cannibalism. When the interactive element becomes the content. I fear this is already happening with news broadcasts (to me, the perfect example of a format where carefully checked, informative facts should be broadcast one-way to consumers). I don’t understand why newsreaders now casually include tweets and emails from their viewers, as though it were some legitimate kind of instant feedback on the world’s events. It’s the equivalent of the crew letting a crowd of random, possibly drunk, strangers into the studio and after presenting each fact, turning to the mob to solicit a few unqualified outbursts. There can be different, separate programmes provided specifically for that!

In summary I think that social TV has the prospect to make watching the humble ‘box’ much more fun and engaging, as long as we don’t get carried away with the possibilities. Perhaps even Noel Edmonds himself has some big plans.