06/07/2012 07:00 pm ET Updated Aug 07, 2012

Social TV: Why It's the Next Big Thing... Will You Be Able to Play Along With Your Favorite Shows?

Picture this: The lights dim, the tension rises, and it's so quiet you can hear a pin drop...

"In the children's book series, where is Paddington Bear originally from?"

It's such an easy question! And if you get it right, you win $1,000,000! You can't believe the host asked you such an easy question. But, did he ask you? While sitting in your living room, you pick up your iPad and answer. Are you a winner?

You can find out this summer, when Britain's ITV, launches its prime time version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? with a feature that allows the viewers to play along in real-time from their second screens (smartphones, tablets, and computers, online).

The television industry today is at the beginning of a major transformation that will dramatically change the way people watch television, similar to what we saw happen with the development of interactivity on mobile phones in 2008. In the three years that followed, more than 200M iPhones downloaded 15B apps, and the way people used their phones was forever changed.

This new transformation in television is known as Social TV and it brings together television, the best audience maker; with the Internet, the best social and frictionless monetization tool. As a result of this combination, we will see the growth of a new multi-billion dollar Social TV market over the next several years. And within the next 18 months, it's highly likely that most game shows, sports broadcasts, and reality TV shows will offer some type of play along experience.

Numerous studies have found that up to 80 percent of TV viewers use a second screen device while watching TV*. This raises an interesting set of questions for networks, content production companies and advertisers. Specifically, the key question for them is no longer "will viewers use a second screen device when they watch TV?" but rather:

• "Whose content will the viewer be watching?
• "Will the networks, production companies and advertisers be able to monetize that content, or will somebody else?"
• "Who will win over viewer eyeballs, a new company entering the market or the current industry players?"
• "What type of TV programs will need to be created to fully leverage the Social TV experience?"

The Social TV approach to the market is innovative because, for the first time it's allowing TV viewers to have a truly personalized, enriched, interactive TV experience and networks and advertisers to get to know their audience individually and interact with them.

Though interactive TV has been around since the early 1990s, it was never able to deliver a rich enough interactive experience to the viewer for the following reasons:
• The cable/satellite ecosystem over the previous 20 years was not open enough and was too technologically heterogeneous to allow app developers and designers to invest the resources needed to create applications.
• The cable/satellite technology was also limited, only supporting a pushed content experience that did not allow the viewer to participate with the content they were watching, and
• Interactive content could not be delivered in a way that didn't compromise the overall program viewing experience (i.e. interactive content overtaking the TV screen).

Today's mass adoption of smartphones, tablets, and PCs provides the opportunity for developers and designers to create a real interactive Social TV experience that runs on the second screen, impacting the entire television ecosystem from content production to a viewer's relationship with the networks, to the way that companies advertise.

The first generation of Social TV apps (i.e., Miso,, Viggle, etc.) allow viewers to minimally interact with what they see on TV. These applications have limited use cases, features and interfaces, and offer little, if any, monetization opportunities. But, they offer a glimpse at where the industry is heading.

The next generation of Social TV, being driven by companies such as, Visiware, ACTV8, and others aim to create second screen apps that truly connect the viewer with what they are watching real-time on TV. This enriched TV experience not only supports synced, real-time content between the viewer and the program, but also T-Commerce, interactive advertising, and CRM. Now, viewers can go beyond the simple experiences offered in the first generation apps, which include mainly checking-in, random Tweets, and Facebook posting.

This next generation of Social TV apps, allow a mass number of viewers watching a game show to play along in real-time as if they were actually on the TV set as a contestant. Viewers can also participate in real-time polls and quizzes and match their answers with everyone else watching the show as well as receive stats and information about their answers, such as: "70 percent of the women answered right", or "New York answered faster than LA"; and instead of "Ask the Audience" being the "Lifeline" in Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? it could be "Ask the Nation" and the whole country gets to vote on the correct answer in real-time.

Production companies, such as Endemol (that started first with the Money Drop show), Fremantle, and Sony understand the benefits of a true interactive TV program and are launching more and more Social TV applications. Europe overall is currently leading the Social TV effort, but we expect a major network in the U.S. market to launch its first play along shows this Fall.

Social TV + Audience = Money

In addition to enhancing the user experience, Social TV supports a new multi-business model that will redefine the TV ecosystem including T-Commerce, interactive and targeted advertising, premium content sale (i.e., video, music), and gaming.

Social TV viewers can actually purchase what they are seeing on TV and/or is being promoted on the second screen device itself. For example, a viewer watching a football game and using a Social TV NFL app could easily buy their favorite player's jersey. The second screen app would link directly to the NFL Shop to make the purchase. Or, a viewer could also buy a song being performed by a contestant on The Voice.

Advertisers can bring the power of web technologies to the TV audience, delivering interactive and fun ads that capture the viewer longer, garner more information about the consumer, are better targeted, and have richer content than a standard 15 or 30 second TV ad presented today to the passive viewer.

Likewise, a Social TV app can engage viewers both when their shows are, and are not, being broadcasted by providing additional information about the shows. For example, offering casual gaming that integrates the content of show into an interactive game format -- an X Factor casual game.

The next generation of Social TV is only the beginning of what is coming. Currently, Social TV applications and experiences are being integrated with content that was developed independently from the second screen. As such, many of the current shows on TV don't lend themselves well to a Social TV experience because they weren't created with the second screen in mind. In the near future, it's highly likely that TV programming itself will change and shows will be conceived and even designed around an integrated Social TV experience.

Food for thought: Beyond the next generation of Social TV, we might have to start exploring the question, "Will the second screen ever become the first screen?"

*According to recent Nielsen studies