The problem that is still existing is the aspect of the business model.

Dr. Montpetit, who works in MIT’s Research Laboratory of Electronics, was among the experts and influencers we talked with for our May trend report, “10 Ways Marketers Are Using the Second Screen.” One of her interests is social TV—using technology to connect disparate viewers—which Montpetit was thinking about well before it became a hot topic. In her classes, the so-called “matriarch of social TV” has had students develop specific ideas around this concept. She talked to us about some of the more interesting ones they’ve come up with and explained why we’re still in the early stages of realizing the potential of social TV.

How did you get interested in social TV?

It started about 2000, 2001. People had started thinking that texting on your phone could be used to exchange information while you were watching television, and maybe it would be a good idea to show some of that stuff on the TV. At first it was very difficult, because you had to re-create your friends groups. You could use your phone address book, but it was not as convenient. Suddenly, when Facebook appeared, there was a very easy way to create and manage your friends group.

We started having the idea to use something like Facebook and connecting it to TV content, both traditional TV and over-the-top—that there was a way to create very interesting connections. And to create more engagement with the TV content from the use of these other devices.

Do you think we’re at a turning point right now in terms of seeing this idea realized?

It depends on if you talk of the turning point in terms of technology or in terms of business models. The turning point, in terms of technology, has been there for quite a long time. There’s still some issues in terms of some of the connectivity aspects, but I would say it’s there. The problem that is still existing—and I’m not sure that 2012 will fully resolve it—is the aspect of the business model.

It’s very disruptive for the TV industry. But I would say we’re getting close to where there is going to be something that will become very successful, because there seems to be a demand for it. And the thing is how to tap into this: creating better experiences with viewing rooms, the creation of extra content. How do you monetize all these great ideas?

What are some of the more promising ideas out there right now?

The ones that recognize the value of an affinity group. I don’t like the idea of just posting random tweets about a show; I think a lot of times, from our experience, people are not that interested in the comments of people they don’t know, [as opposed to] the ones that are creating affinity groups that know one another—from a Facebook group, for example, or from Google+.

The idea of using crowdsourcing or some form of joint evaluation of programming, or even joint creation in some cases, seems very promising. The idea of allowing the different screens to interact so that people are not obliged to watch on the same screen, or even the same environment—somebody could be watching on a TV, somebody else could be watching on a tablet. I think that’s interesting.

What else can you do with this? Can you do journalism? Can you do some health care? There’s been projects like that in our class that were very interesting. How do you create better advertisements … how do you link the advertisement much more to the social experience? There’s a lot of very, very good ideas out there. And I think we’re still figuring out which ones are going to be the most successful.

How would health care come into play here?

Strangely enough, it’s one of our first ideas ever; it’s now close to five years ago. [The idea] was to use a show to create a support group and to allow people who have the same disease, for example, to be able to engage around the show and to exchange their experiences. That has a lot of potential. We had developed a little demo of it, where people also could be, while they were watching a certain show, reminded that they needed to take their medication.

That could be something interesting, especially for people who have diseases that are very hard to deal with and that need a lot of support. We had thought about that, strangely enough, around some of the shows on the Hallmark Channel, because they have these very uplifting shows about people surviving breast cancer, for example. And we’re thinking that amongst people who watch that show, there’s probably a lot of breast cancer survivors, and they could probably help people who are suffering at that point. If there was a way of creating through Facebook or something a support group for people, then around that content people could really exchange.

So it could be a very personal kind of engagement?

It’s interesting, we were discussing that in class today. It’s both personalized and in a group. It’s personalized because you relate to this show in a personalized way. You know, a lot of people are watching Game of Thrones right now, for all kinds of reasons. You could find a group of people who are watching it just for the medieval aspects. So that would be not only for you but for people of the same affinities. It’s personalized for the group that shares the same interests.

You mentioned joint creation of programming. How would that work?

There’s been a lot of interest in using some form of social interaction to create new content. There were some trials on that many years ago, using Myspace, where people would be asked a question in the afternoon and the show at night would be influenced by some of the answers.

I think a lot of the content providers all have an idea of what they would like to do. What’s missing, again, is the business models.

What are some of the ways you’ve discussed in your classes about how to link advertising to a social experience?

There’s been many ways. Some of the ideas were because of the topic of the show. So you could actually link the commercials to it. If it’s a cooking show that people are watching together, there could be some advertising related to that. There was [an idea] related to the group of friends, so if you know that the group of friends are watching this and are all fans of a certain show, maybe they also are fans of a certain product, so you would send them things that are related to it.

We had [ideas] where the show was inside the commercial, so the people were watching some kind of commercial and inside that commercial they would meet some of the actors of the show they like. It was more like a game platform. So you would be walking around a supermarket, and then the actors of the show would come and you would meet them and they would talk about products, which was kind of interesting.

Another one we thought about was, let’s say that you and I are already subscribing to HBO, for example, and somebody wants to watch with us but they don’t subscribe to HBO. Well, they would have to watch an ad to become part of our group. And that would allow them to have, I don’t know, special passwords to get into the session. It’s all about personalized advertising or to use the ad as a way to enter the group.

We’ve talked to a lot of ad agencies about how to embed bar codes so that people would be able to find other content. More and more, I think, there’s broader placement inside the shows, because people will fast-forward through their DVR.

We’re also seeing apps like Shazam that let people link to more content from ads.

The problem with that … it’s not very practical because by the time you get your phone application loaded, this commercial’s over. And if I was going to do it, I would want to know that everybody who’s going to watch it has a smartphone to do it. And that’s not the case.

What demographics do you think will be most drawn to social TV?

Often I see the demographics that people don’t really think about. I think there’s going to be a lot of buy-in from older people. They have money. And certainly, they’re adopting tablets very fast. The idea of social television is very nice for grandparents. Because where would they have an opportunity to be watching television with their grandkids when they live across the country? You could have an application where, while you watch [a show], you leave messages. And when your grandkids watch it, they see your messages. It’s pretty cool.

What kind of programming do you think social TV works best with?

You can actually do it for anything. It’s just, where, when do you do it? So for sports, obviously, people interact while the game is on. But if you think of the drama—people don’t interact that much while it’s on, but they interact a lot after. Before and after. And during the commercials. It’s actually very much what people used to do using the phone. People would phone to talk about the different shows.

In that sense it’s potentially harmful to advertisers, because viewers switch their attention to their Twitter feed or whatever as soon as the ads come on.

Or it could be good, because people look at a Twitter feed and if there’s commercials on the Twitter feed … it’s finding ways. But I would say that there’s maybe something you can do beyond that.

For instance?

That’s not my field, frankly. But if you have a second screen, the second screen could be sponsored by an advertiser. You don’t have to have an ad. You just have to have a little logo on the bottom. I think that’s what they do on X Factor right now, with Verizon and Pepsi.

Do you think ultimately TV content will change in reaction to this?

I think it depends on the show, and it depends what the storytellers are interesting in telling. There’s some shows that are going to be very much targeted to encourage interaction or socialization. But the best way of socialization is telling an incredible story and have people talk about it outside the show.

But, actually, what we tell the students is that you still need to cater to people who just want to turn on the TV and relax watching it. This is what they call lean back and lean forward. And lean forward is when you really want to be active. It’s the Web experience. The lean back, the traditional TV, you just want to sit down and relax. You need to be able to cater to both.

What behaviors are you seeing around social TV that you might not have expected when you started researching this?

How fast it developed. [Initially] people thought we were crazy. People thought that, you know, Facebook’s going to disappear … TV is dead, the cyber stuff will never work. So, they didn’t believe in it. There was so much skepticism around it initially.

When we said that we’re going to combine Facebook and a DVR and television and the phone and a PC, people looked at you as nuts. Now we sound like visionaries. And it took off so fast. We haven’t gotten to the tipping point where people have started making a huge amount of money with it, but we could be very close.

You can, certainly, see the potential at this stage.

And, right now, there’s a lot of people who do see the potential. TV executives are starting to take notice of it. Obviously companies like Comcast. There’s a lot of VC money being poured into this right now. So something’s going to come out in, you know, 2012, 2013. There’s going to be things that are going to be very successful. I can see from our students—a lot are starting startups. I’m sure a few of them, or one of them, is going to be very successful.

What other kind of new technologies do you think will help to drive this?

We have a student that wants to look into what is the social aspect of 3D. I’m very interested in seeing what he’s going to come up with. They’re going to do ultra-HD, which is even more high definition. Obviously mobility is still very interesting, especially with 4G and stuff, where you can start watching everywhere. The fact that you can cache content to watch it later on any device you have. And some of the technology we develop here enables us for that.

How do you see social TV evolving in the near term?

I think it’s going to be the first wave, which are going to be these viewing rooms, people trying to communicate. And then there’s going to be the second wave, which is more combining it with specific content. Or adding some journalism—we have many projects like that in our class. Or this social aspect I was mentioning—creating an affinity group around a certain theme, or around a certain disease, or a certain hobby. We’ve had, in our class, things around shopping and around cooking. I think there’s going to be inclusion of other things, like virtual reality will allow it to become the show within the show.

I think a lot of these things are existing in someone’s brain, but there is no funding—people are very careful right now. But if a few of these applications become wildly successful, it will open the box for many other things.

Is there anything you’re talking about now that people are dismissing as kind of crazy—that we’ll all be talking about in another five years?

A few things maybe. But you may not have a second chance of being that crazy.