If MySpace can do it then TV networks and local broadcasters are betting they can too.
Broadcast and cable networks have begun to experiment in the social-networking business, adding tools to their Web sites that mimic the new style of online interaction pioneered by MySpace. This push into social networking was the undercurrent beneath the big, blaring TVs and the tiny cell phones that took center stage at last week’s Consumer Electronics Show.
Though TV screens as large as 100 inches and mobile phones with crystal-clear displays smaller than two inches captured the lion’s share of the headlines, the emerging theme of last week’s annual toast to devices and the content that inhabits them was social networking.
Both Disney CEO Bob Iger and CBS Corp. CEO Les Moonves highlighted the new interactive forays their networks are taking into social networking in their keynote speeches, while smaller niche players debuted new products and services focused on letting viewers tag, comment, blog and interact in a meaningful fashion on their Web sites.
For instance, Showtime’s “The L Word” just launched a new social-networking site called Ourchart.com. The site is for gay women and was inspired by a storyline from “The L Word,” said the show’s creator Ilene Chaikin, who joined Mr. Moonves on stage during his keynote to demonstrate the features of the site. Ms. Chaikin said she’ll also let fans weigh in on show storylines on the site and that she’ll incorporate fans’ desires into the show. “Social networking sites are all the rage. Everyone wants one, but we aren’t just jumping on a bandwagon. We have focused on it from the beginning,” she said.
Also, CBS’s college sports network CSTV plans to introduce later this year a new online feature called “Skybox.” It lets fans watch a game together online and interact with each other while watching. “It’s optimized for a live experience so fans can talk to each other and watch videos of each other live with commentary during the game,” said CSTV President and CEO Brian Bedol.
Then there’s Disney, which is relaunching its Web site Disney.com at the end of this month to include some social-networking components such as a personal message center, expanded chat options, friends’ lists and leader boards for games. “We see an explosion of personal media on the broadband computer. We believe Disney.com has to service the interests of the online user by offering a robust, broad and deep entertainment experience,” Mr. Iger said. “We plan to build more virtual worlds, like Buzz and Woody’s toy universe, perhaps racing Lightning McQueen through Radiator Springs or engaging in the magic world of Cinderella and the other Disney princesses.”
Finally, the CBS Television Stations Digital Media Group is planning a push into social networking this year as it turns its energies to building out video on its CW-affiliated station sites. The group has already been successful at growing revenues and traffic on its CBS-owned sites after adding more video to those Web sites over the last few years.
“People want to be heard, people want to be recognized. It’s a personal satisfaction,” said Jonathan Leess, president and general manager of the CBS Television Stations Digital Media Group. “The opportunity for broadcasters to convert from the traditional one-way linear medium to a two-way interactive medium is not only real but now a necessity. The phenomena of broadband user-generated content, citizen journalism and social networking can enable broadcasters to connect to their viewers and communities in a more meaningful manner, especially at the local level, where relevancy and personal recognition is the key differentiator.”
The NBC-owned stations have also dabbled in social networking via a deal with technology company Motionbox that lets users highlight certain parts of the video they upload, explained Douglas Warshaw, CEO of Motionbox. The key to making social-networking tools work on a media or entertainment site is to strike a balance between protecting the brand and giving the viewers a real voice. When viewers upload video on an NBC-owned station site, NBC does approve the video first, but viewers can still get the instant gratification they seek because the motionbox.com site posts the video immediately. “People want high-end content and low-end content,” Mr. Warshaw said. He added that he’s in talks with other TV stations as well as broadcast and cable networks to use Motionbox technology.
Giving users free-form communication is critical to the success of a social network, said Shawn Gold, senior VP of marketing and content at MySpace. “If you limit communications, social networks don’t work,” he said.
But simply offering social-networking tools does not guarantee success, despite the fact that MySpace has demonstrated that consumers want to interact and connect. “It’s hard to have a successful social network without scale,” he said. However, he does believe that niche social networks can work. “The smaller community you go to, the better the chance you have at succeeding.”
Viewers also like to be rewarded for participating. They want recognition among other members and they want access, he said.
Niche players are looking to add social networking elements to their programming. Online TV site MediaZone, which aggregates content online from global broadcasters, introduced at CES last week its new online TV service called “Social TV” that meshes blogging, tagging video and live chats around its online TV channels.
Later this quarter, Social TV will weave advertising opportunities into its service. The programming includes extreme sports, comedy, lifestyle programming and content from international broadcasters such as CCTV in China.