The State of Social TV: A Discussion with Jason George, CEO, Telescope

Written by: Team Telescope

Industry News


The State of Social TV: A Discussion with Jason George, CEO, Telescope

A pioneer of the social and engagement television spaces, Jason George, CEO,  Telescope , has worked at the forefront of audience interactivity and technology for more than two decades.

Over the past ten years, Jason has inked relationships with all the major broadcast, cable and ONO networks while also forging technology partnerships with the likes of Facebook and Twitter, resulting in Telescope becoming the authority on social video engagement and audience participation for the highest profile programming and live events across entertainment, sports and news.

Jason has not only brought the worlds of media and technology closer together, but also brought television fans closer to their favorite series, including NBC’s “The Voice,” and “America’s Got Talent”, and “American Idol” on FOX, as well as major hits on CBS, ABC, Food Network, HGTV, SyFy, Bravo, and Telemundo.

Telescope has also lead the way in social interactivity in the sports-media industry, with their platform Connect Live powering viewer engagement experiences for NASCAR, Turner’s Sport NBA coverage, Major League Soccer, and the NHL.

The company’s video streaming platform – Live Studio – pioneered professional live video on social platforms and led to the company being nominated for two Emmy Awards in 2017.

Next TV News had the opportunity to ask Jason a few questions about the current state of “Social TV” from Telescope’s perspective and discuss the future of audience participation on both linear and OTT networks.

NTVN: Over the last several years there has been a lot of experimental use of “Social TV” on linear broadcasts, both on the local and national level, including tweets to screen, interactive polling, and photo/video displays directly in the broadcast or on monitor walls or directly in commercials.  What sort of metrics are you seeing broadcasters using to call these engagements a “success” so that they can engage companies such as Telescope to continue linear TV executions such as these?

JG: We supply metrics around number of participants, frequency and – where appropriate – page impressions, and with the social platforms other engagement metrics like shares, comments and reach metrics. Beyond that, the $80 billion question is: “tell me what impact this had on my rating points?” and of course it’s impossible to directly correlate social impact to ratings.

My own view is that many times success has not necessarily been judged on the metrics, it’s more about “shiny and new” and the ability to attract sponsors to innovative executions, irrespective of the results. Alongside this, I believe some of the use cases you describe above are actually pretty limited and are now looking tired – I can pull someone’s tweet up on air, so what? That’s not enough of a reason to do it, there has to be something more fundamental that’s supporting the on air narrative and/or offering viewers a deeper more compelling engagement. By doing that, the by-product will be better success metrics and sponsor interest.

We talk about four things motivating audience participation – and this is true across any video distribution (TV, OTT, social platforms – whatever):

  • I can actually impact what’s going on in the broadcast, such as a vote to decide who stays on a competition show

  • I can win something

  • I can have my 15-seconds of fame/name up in lights

  • I’m getting something exclusive that not everyone else can get

Any one of these executed correctly can drive a lot of participation, if you can do more than one in the same execution then it can be even more impactful. So “tweet to air” can be a great application if, for instance, it’s me tweeting a question to my favorite band and them answering that question in real-time or, as with The Voice Save, I have five minutes during the live results show to decide who stays and who goes from the show. Even better if I’m also getting name-checked by the host or via on air graphics. Profile pic on air too? Sweet.

NTVN: On a similar vain, how successful has “gamification,” where audiences “play along” with their mobile devices or computers during live streams and events, been for Telescope?  Do you see a day where large audiences will make it “appointment viewing” to want to “play along” in front of their TV during live linear broadcasts?

JG: We’ve been at this for 15 years or so and one of the things that has me really excited is that the ability for truly real-time interactive shows is finally here. Finally! We’ve worked in the traditional broadcast space that whole time and developed technology that engages audiences into a 2nd Screen environment for want of a better term. So you have to get someone from TV, into a digital or social platform and then ideally reflect that interactivity and UGC back into the on air experience. Let me tell you, that is hard work!

Technology moves so fast these days and network engineering hubs were not generally made with this type of experience in mind. The systems, technology and processes they have in place are just not suited to it, and that often adds cost and complexity that means producers either don’t get the experience they really want for their viewers, or it becomes more expensive than it should be.

Enter Facebook Live and other social platforms who are launching headfirst into video currently. The whole experience there is one place, one screen and it really feels like it’s a two-way conversation with the audience, not a one-way broadcast. That participation is organic to the experience, not bolted on, and from working extensively in that space for the past 18 months, I think audiences expect it.

Over time, that will extend further to fully interactive experiences – why not a game show where me (and my avatar) can play along in real-time against thousands of other contestants for the chance to win prizes (I can win!)? And every question round one lucky player gets the chance to go live to air and win a spot prize (I can get my name up in lights and win something!).

Will people make an appointment to view that? Absolutely! We already shout the answers at the TV when we’re watching Family Feud, why wouldn’t we want to actually take part? It could be an experience that lives alongside an existing game show format – but it doesn’t have to be. I could have a “last player standing” show (think poker tournament) – where we start at a certain time and play until there’s a winner – only with questions and challenges instead of cards. The TV schedule has performed an important function – but it’s also a limitation of course and has held back new creative forms.

One final point on this – I’m not sure if it fits right here, but I think it’s really important: on Facebook – engagement is reach and reach is engagement. Because of the way the algorithm works, the two work hand in hand – the more engagement you get, the more the algorithm will prioritize your content and surface it to potential viewers, driving awareness and reach. Understanding this is crucial to a publisher’s success, especially with Facebook Live which the algorithm currently prioritizes (48% of live content is discovered via users’ news feeds, i.e. they didn’t see the original post, they didn’t make an appointment to view – they went because the content was meta-tagged with an interest they have, or because a friend liked, shared, commented or reacted).

So if a content creator really nails an interactive show, it will generate a ton of engagement and that in itself will drive its viewership hugely.

NTVN:We’ve heard from Streamlabs’ Ali Moiz that the future of monetization for live streamers (particularly with more “independent” producers) is through “tip jars” or micro payments and not necessarily through direct sponsorships or advertising.   Are you seeing that trend in your activations and how can Telescope support these sort of monetization techniques?

JG: Yes, I saw Ali said that at a recent conference and I’d read about what YouTube is doing to enable creators to monetize their content. I think it’s a great idea and speaks to some of the concepts above (fans able to have their 15-seconds…). In other markets like Europe, they’ve been able to charge for applications like TV chat and live interactive quiz shows via premium mobile billing but that has happened less here historically. I think there’s a lot that could be done with micro-payments – in the example above re: an interactive game show, there may be opportunities to create payment levels for certain criteria also, and I think audiences are increasingly willing to make smaller one-off payments to fund the content they want.

We haven’t done anything in this space as yet – we’re delivering content mainly to Facebook and to a lesser extent Twitter (who don’t have this capability), and most of our projects are more at the premium content end of the spectrum rather than creators, which I think this is really aimed at.

Ultimately, I think it will be a combination of micro-payments with sponsorship/advertising, not necessarily one or the other.

NTVN: Telescope has been in the news recently providing support for charitable organizations to raise funds for groups such as One Love Manchester, Americares for Hurricane Harvey relief, the ACLU, Coaches vs. Cancer and City Harvest. How has Telescope been able to adapt its technology to support these efforts, in what could now be called “next generation telethons”?

JG: In our case, these have almost all been “Facebook Live-A-Thons” though we have supported fundraising via channels like call-in and SMS with partners like Comic Relief and Hand-In-Hand.

Facebook has enabled third party developers like Telescope to integrate live streaming with their donation capability via APIs. We see FB Live as a fantastic way to drive awareness and reach and, combined with Donate, charities now have the capability to do both. It’s enabled in our Live Studio platform and is very easy to switch on – with the caveat that Facebook’s team has to verify the NPO status before giving us the green light.

Both One Love Manchester and Hand In Hand came together extremely fast of course, so it’s vital to have technology that can be deployed to meet that need – via Live Studio/Facebook’s Live API we can do that. I can’t say our Production team love the 24/48 hour timelines, but they’re fantastic and have always managed to deliver.

Both those two projects were able to raise significant funds from their Facebook Live broadcasts – in the hundreds of thousands – and maybe more importantly, were able to distribute the content much more widely than they would have been able to via traditional broadcast deals. Facebook gives them the ability to deliver to a global audience and we saw the effects of that directly in reach and engagement.

Do you find that clients, whether broadcasters or agencies, in searching for companies that specialize in “interactive” or “social” activations, seem to prefer a complete, comprehensive solution including research, creative production, broadcast execution, and analytics, or “a la carte” service where a single element is commissioned and integrated into existing workflow?

Every client is different in their approach but generally in my experience they prefer someone who can bring it all together – and I also believe those differing skill sets often go hand-in-hand and need to be approached cohesively, i.e creative execution backed by experience with data that supports it. You always have to be careful that you don’t become a “jack of all trades, master of none” – for instance, we would not pass ourselves off as a specialist in social analytics. Equally, most customers don’t just want someone to turn up with a box, say “have at it” and merrily wave them goodbye. We see ourselves as a tech enabled services company and our most valuable asset is the expertise and executional skill sets. The technology is a given and clients ultimately don’t care too much about it – they just want it to work!

NTVN: Broadcasters are only recently embracing the idea of building audiences through their own channels, such as through custom station apps or websites without necessarily using only Facebook or Twitter.  Do you see this happening with your clients and can Telescope support these endeavors for current or prospective clients?

JG: We do a lot of work on clients’ OnO applications as well as social platforms.

If managed in the right way, the social networks are fantastic at building awareness, reach and engagement. Their weak point – especially for premium publishers – is monetization. It’s something they’ll have to solve ultimately, whether that’s on canvas (their preferred route of course) or off. Facebook and Twitter of course will make the argument that distributing content on their platform raises the value of those rights by driving reach and awareness, and that it will create opportunities to monetize elsewhere in the value chain.

OnO sites have exactly the opposite challenge. Publishers have full control over the assets and monetization, but the struggle is getting eyeballs to them. Plus often they don’t have a lot of first party data and access to consumers to drive them there.

Ultimately I think publishers will take a mixed approach and keep some of their premium content away from the social networks but use them to drive awareness of that content, until they feel they can be adequately compensated for fully distributing that content there.

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