An Academic's Sojourn Through Communication
In a previous post, I began a discussion on how American producers — professionals, semi-professionals and amateurs — are experimenting with using Internet-based distribution to promote and produce interactive television. In that post, I highlighted the case study of the live telecast for the SyFy series Ghost Hunters. In this post, I continue this discussion by highlighting the experiments from the American broadcast networks CBS and NBC, and how they, for a brief time, structured spaces in their websites to become places of social interactivity that remediate the activities viewers would do in their living rooms.
These two case studies are examples of experiments similar in both distribution structure and consumption practices. They are attempts by CBS and NBC to structure online spaces to become virtual “living rooms” for retransmitting content that has already been transmitted via conventional OTA and cable. The observations come from the fall of 2008, and of the services, at the time of writing, only those on NBC can still be accessed. These attempts are technically not original, as ABC Family, MTV, and an entertainment portal Lycos had attempted something similar years before. However, they are unique these were the first attempts to produce ongoing services directly tied to on-demand libraries the content providers could offer on their websites.
The CBS and NBC experiments have in common the idea of providing synchronous communication between viewers for the duration of the video stream. That is, while the video is playing, people are linked to each other via a chat function so that they may engage in dialogue with one another as if they were in the same room watching the show on a television set – hence the conceptualization of the virtual “living room”. Where the experiments differ is in what videos are available, how to find people to be “in the room” with you, and how to interact with each other in these rooms.
The CBS Social (Viewing) Rooms experiment began in October 2008, as part of the CBS Labs and CBS Interactive attempt to find innovative ways to display television online by promoting the ability to interact with people as if they sitting right next to you. When I started participating in this experiment, these spaces were called Social Viewing Rooms. Their name subsequently was shortened to simply Social Room, accessible via http://www.cbs.com/socialroom. CBS, with its partnership with Viacom, and extensive libraries from Paramount and Spelling Entertainment, offered a variety of series from all the dayparts as well as classics, such as: Survivor, NCIS, Young and Restless, The Late Late Show, Star Trek, Twilight Zone, MacGyver, Love Boat, Family Ties, and Melrose Place.
Scrolling through the selection of series offered, however, I found an imposed limitation. As seen in the figure above, I could not choose any episode I wanted from a particular series. Each series had a particular episode being played when I would visit the website, and if I wanted to participate by watching that series, then I had to accept watching that episode. Moreover, the episode could already be in progress by the time I entered the Social Room; if I wanted to see it from the beginning — say if I had never seen the episode, as was the case when I watched one from the series Numb3rs — I had to wait for the next screening to begin. Going into a Social Room while the show was in progress made little difference to me when the series was the original Star Trek; I knew from memory the episode that was airing.
On the list of what was available to watch, each entry offered how many other people were currently “in the room”, watching the series, at that time. I found this useful to locate rooms where there would be people. As mentioned above, and seen in the image below, there was a synchronous chat field, similar to chat rooms, underneath the video as it streamed. Each person would be represented in this field by a pictorial icon of their choosing. In these chat fields I could talk to the other viewers about what was going on in the show, make comments about the series in general, or talk about some non-related topic. All of this happened in real time, with my text and their text appearing as cartoon dialogue balloons above our icons, actually overlapping the video being played. There were also asynchronous communication possibilities, with a message board, and quizzes that were offered regarding the series being watched.
One feature set apart the Social Room from NBC’s experiment. As well as interacting with fellow viewers, I could superficially interact with the content of the video. Rolling over the video field, a menu appeared with a series of cartoon icons. These icons represented a series of actions I could perform at the video stream, even to particular spots on the screen that I choose. These actions included showing love, kissing, throwing a dart or tomato, and, most telling, putting on the screen an image to reflect the corporate sponsor of the Social Room. The first sponsor I encountered was Intel, who was even highlighted by CBS as being a partner in their experiment. A subsequent sponsor I encountered was Coca-Cola.
I will confess I could not spend as much time in NBC’s experiment, the Viewing Party. At the beginning of my data collection period, the CBS Social Rooms were viewable to people living outside of the United States, such as myself. NBC/Universal, on the other hand, prevented access to their video streams outside of the United States; thus, I was only able to participate in this experience at the end of my data collection period, when I had returned stateside. Since I had been made aware of the NBC experiment by looking into the Social Rooms, I felt it necessary to see how they compared.
NBC’s Viewing Party structure is located as part of MyNBC and NBC Video Rewind, which they label as a way to combine community, personalization and video on demand. The service was launched in the spring of 2008, but it appears to have been kept more secretive than CBS’s Social Room. The service is accessed not as directly as CBS, through one central webpage, but through the shows that allow Viewing Parties to be formed; http://www.nbc.com/shows/ is the place to find the option “Start a Viewing Party”, as seen in the image above. There is no central list as is found on CBS Social Room. It appears more that you have to know that the service is available for the series you are interested in; perhaps this is a function of being part of the MyNBC community that fans and users will communicate about Viewing Parties. However, as there is no list saying what is available when you log on, and the focus is more on the series than a particular episode being available, there is a wider selection of episodes from the library that can be viewed at any time. Unlike CBS, the user has more control over what to watch and when – and indeed, even with whom.
As with CBS, I could go into any party already started by going to the lobby and finding a party in progress. However, NBC structured the service more towards those individuals interested in creating their own unique parties – to become a host in a virtual living room, so to speak. A person could initiate a Viewing Party by choosing the episode to watch, then sending out invitations by selecting friends who are also members of MyNBC or sending emails to individuals not part of the community. This structure is similar to the physical world phenomenon of gathering friends to watch a series, perhaps week after week, making it a ritual. Giving individuals this control is what leads NBC to call such spaces “viewing party”. With CBS, the space is simply a place to watch video, or a room. With NBC, the space is a place to be with your real friends, or a party.
As with CBS, there is a chat field to allow synchronous communication between all viewers. There are also polling and quizzing functions, but unlike CBS here the host could potentially create one to test his friends. Again, this can be understood in terms of structuring the experience as a “party” and empowering the user who created the party as a host. Unlike CBS, there was no superficial interaction with the video’s content.
These two experiments share in common their allowance for consumption practices that control what to watch and when and with whom, although CBS restricts these controls more than NBC does. However, such time-shifting capability is increasingly a common feature for television consumption in the United States. With DVRs and various websites that stream video, time-shifting appears to be the central interaction promoted and used with interactive and Internet television. Where innovation occurs in these experiments is that both structures promote the incorporation of a synchronous communication capability. This social interaction feature is provided, and rhetorically promoted in press releases and the labelling of the services, to reduce the feeling of watching alone, as Internet use is often described as a physically solitary experience.
As far as narrative interactivity, neither CBS nor NBC offered the ability for the user to control the content of the video in these spaces. However, CBS provided a means to express emotionality towards the content, perhaps attempting to replicate the perchance for such outbursts in other viewing contexts. For all but the last icon, these activities represent what could be considered as conventional audience reactions to content – conventional in the sense that they are examples of a parasocial interaction that is either positive (showering with love, blowing kisses) or negative (throwing darts or tomatoes). These restricted activities represent a conceptualization of how audiences in their own living rooms may emotionally act out towards the content. The last activity is akin to product placement, but it is product placement at the control of the user. Rather than be subject to either covert or overt advertising integrated into the content, here the user has the option to place the advertisement wherever the user desires. Including it with the other activities may be an attempt to treat ironically the idea of product placement, as you can throw an ad at the screen as easily as a kiss or a dart.
Meanwhile, the lack of such superficial interactivity in the NBC Viewing Parties can be understood in how these two experiments differ regarding with whom you watch the video. With CBS, unless you have negotiated a coordinated viewing external to the Social Room, you are most likely watching with strangers. In that instance, if you do not find your fellow viewers to be interesting enough to speak with, then you may be glad to have some other activities to perform while watching the video. With NBC, unless you wander into someone’s party, you are most likely with people you consider to be friends, partly because of being able to talk to them. In that instance, if the content does not hold your attention, you have your friends to talk to, and no other interaction may be necessary.