Sunday, December 02, 2007

Chat around TV?

Between May 2003 and March 2005 the BBC piloted an online chat service (called BBC Connector) which enabled visitors to certain parts of the BBC website to instant message other users viewing the same page as them. Referred to internally as 'chat around content', the concept was arguably ahead of its time / the available technology (the same could be said of MyBBC - a forerunner to the personalised startpage, live on between 2000 and 2003).

Fast forward a couple of years and the notion of chat around content seems to be undergoing something of a renaissance, although this time it's video rather than webpages (Gabbly, weblin et al. excepted) which is the content in question. Stickam got the ball rolling with the launch of its Media Chat service in August 2006, followed by Lycos Cinema in the November and ClipSync in the December. Also in December, YouTube started offering YouTube Streams via its ideas incubator, TestTube. February this year, Lycos added Lycos Mix and in August, Skype launched a new version which enabled users to download videos from Dailymotion and Metacafe and add them to their 'mood', inviting other users to chat around them. In November, Joost revealed Meebo was to provide its chat widget and then just last week Userplane announced tie-ups with Channel 4, The CW, Fuel TV and IFC (although it's not yet clear whether the company's popular IM and chat tools will be directly deployed around video assets or not).

Of course, not all users haven't been waiting around for media owners to join the dots and many have been hacking together their own chat around content experiences for years. One of my favourite BBC Radio Player anecdotes concerns multiple users communicating via Instant Messaging to coordinate a simultaneous press of the play button on listen again programmes, to ensure a synchronous (and therefore shared) listening experience. If its been done for radio, it's a safe bet that the same has been happening around live and on-demand television as well, at least in pockets.

What hasn't yet been established is to what extent users would make use of chat around television functionality were it to become more widely available. Microsoft demonstrated a TV chat interface as far back as 1999, which singularly failed to take the world by storm (although recently leaked screenshots suggest 'Chat whilst watching TV' may be appearing as an option on suitably IPTV-enabled Xbox 360s in the not too distant future).

One argument is that even in this age of continuous partial attention, online chat is too intrusive an activity for most television viewers (although I'm not sure how much water that holds when you consider that talking over the TV is practically a national pastime). Whether viewers will use chat applications to discuss the on-screen programming or not is perhaps a more pertinent question. I also can't help feeling it won't be long before advertisers are asking for IPTV chat apps to be disabled during ad breaks because viewers are ignoring their ads in favour of chatting to their mates (solution: makes your ads interesting enough that people want to talk about them).

Regardless of the absence of demonstrable user-demand, chat functionality is likely to feature on the roadmap of many IPTV companies, looking to use the potential of a network to gain a competitive advantage over terrestrial broadcasters without an integrated back-channel. Only time will tell whether its a mass-market proposition or not.

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