Industry Voices—Ring: The water cooler is dead. Will COVID make TV social again?

(Ring Digital)
Brian Ring Industry Voices

If we hadn’t already lost water cooler TV, COVID-19 may have finished it off.

TV provides leisure value in so many different ways to each of us. I like to think of these as viewing modes. And for much of TV history, we had something called “water cooler discussions,” an ancient ritual whereby people would discuss popular TV shows at the office on water breaks.

Time-shifted viewing, exploding content choices and personal screens has long-ago led to a decline of “water cooler” and “appointment” TV behaviors. As an industry, “personalized TV” has been incredibly rewarding in some ways, dramatically boosting the sheer volume of video we watch – much of it on free internet platforms.

But what happens as TV becomes a mostly solitary experience?

If we’re not watching any of the same videos as our family members, friends, co-workers, or fellow citizens, are we even living in the same world? That is, video deeply influences our psychological lives, but only when it does so in commonality with others can it serve as a reference point for shared understanding.

Now you might say, “Brian. Twitter.”

Yes. In 2014, I began a series of seven half-yearly tracking surveys on the topic of social TV. The proliferation of mobile devices, two-screen habits and social media led me to a multi-year research effort on the prevalence of what I defined as social TV. It is defined it as, quite simply, “voting, posting, sharing or commenting on social media in direct response to something seen on TV.”

The upshot? The 80 / 20 rule prevails. Shouting at the TV via Twitter is quite obviously a thing –but in my surveys the behavior itself is exhibited by a fifth of the U.S. internet user population, roughly.

Then COVID-19 hit. TV production died. Live sports were put on hold.

And the video tech innovation engines began revving up.

On June 11, Hulu launched a Watch Party test feature.

Hulu isn’t the first to the party. Netflix Party, a Chrome extension that enables simultaneous video viewing with friends in other locations, has existed for years. “But it's only now,” CNET author Jennifer Bisset writes, “as people practice self-isolation, that it's become a thing.” (See Netflix Party is a good idea, but doesn’t always work in real life” which outlines several technical hiccups and difficulties in the execution.)

In fact, March, April and May brought a raft of articles on the subject. In 2019, UK-based Eleven Sports won a Sports Pro OTT Award for its remote co-viewing execution. And at least one prescient TV middleware provider, Minerva Networks, has brought renewed innovation energy to communal user stories including Watch Together.

But will TV ever be social again? As a parent, I’ve found it a Herculean task to bring my family into agreement on what to watch, together. And yet – it feels so important to me at a gut level to attempt to do so, to drive more togetherness and common fabric into our TV viewing habits.

Thus spawned new questions. Will COVID accelerate an existing trend toward solitary TV? Or can we seize the moment and control our destiny with a well-built social TV feature set? Are people still two-screening at the alarming rate outlined by Nielsen in a 2018 piece?

Those questions will be the focus of Ring Digital’s June 2020 FutureOfTV survey. To get the free report and access to past reports, sign up for the free quarterly FutureOfTV research letter:

Brian Ring is principal analyst at Ring Digital llc, a revenue growth agency that uses consumer surveys to understand viewing behaviors, inform client product strategies and execute go-to-market thought leadership for vendors serving TV providers, networks, studios and broadcasters around the world.

Industry Voices are opinion columns written by outside contributors—often industry experts or analysts—who are invited to the conversation by FierceVideo staff. They do not represent the opinions of FierceVideo.